Ground game is fine

From February through August Tennessee's coaches promised a return to pound-the-rock, ball-control football. Then September arrives and a quarterback with a broken finger throws 47 passes in Game 1.

Basically, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe says the 47 passes were by necessity, not by design. The Vols wanted to run the ball and run the clock in the opener with an explosive Cal team; things just didn't go as planned.

"Our plan going in was to move the chains, get it to third-and-three, third-and-four, third-and-two, third-and-one and convert at 80 percent," Cutcliffe said. "That's what I thought we would do, which means we were going to keep the ball and keep that talented (Cal) offense off the field."

The problem was, Tennessee failed to convert on a third-and-one and a pair of third-and-two situations in the first half. That killed the ball-control plan.

"It blew up in our face with three of ‘em in the first half," Cutcliffe said of the third-and-short failures.

As for the 47 passes, the coordinator said that could be traced to the fact Tennessee trailed 38-21 by the time it got the ball for the first time in the second half.

"You get in a game where you're behind," Cutcliffe said, "and that's going to happen."

Sure enough, Erik Ainge attempted 30 of those 47 passes in the second half.

"That tells you a little bit about the score," Cutcliffe said.

No. 1 tailback Arian Foster had a productive day, gaining 89 yards on just 13 carries for an average of 6.8 yards per rush. Backup Montario Hardesty carried nine times for another 27 yards. Cutcliffe hopes to keep them busier in Game 2 vs. Southern Miss.

"Our tailbacks only had 22 runs," the coordinator said. "I would like to have more than that. Our tailbacks averaged pretty good when they ran the ball. As I critiqued myself I'd like to have run the ball more."

Despite a fractured pinky, Ainge completed 15 of 17 passes in the first half and 14 of 18 in the third quarter. He was 29 of 35 (an 83-percent success rate) entering the final period, so the coaches decided to put the game in his hands.

"We were completing probably 75 percent in the third quarter," Cutcliffe noted, "and just didn't want to go away from it because it was such a high percentage."

With Ainge's finger throbbing and Cal's defense ignoring the run, however, Tennessee completed just 3 of 12 passes in the final quarter.

"There at the end we finished terrible," Cutcliffe said. "That was the most disappointing part of the game – that we finished poorly. If we do something special at the end of the game we may win the game, but we didn't do anything special."

Running backs coach Kurt Roper says Foster and Hardesty did not find Game 1 frustrating, despite the heavy reliance on the passing game.

"Not frustrating," the Vol aide said. "We're all on the same page. Coach Cut and I have been together a long time now. I've been a quarterback coach, too, so I understand the play-calling end of it. We were just trying to make plays to win the game.

"They (running backs) understand. Whatever it takes to win a football game, that's what we're going to do."


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