But the Vols are still struggling to make good on third-and-short – a problem that has plagued the program for several years.
That problem reared its head in the opener against California. UT misfired four times on third-and-2 or less in the first half.
Seldom did Tennessee try to run, instead opting for short passes. It backfired.
``In the first half, that was extremely disappointing,'' said Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.
On a third-and-1 late in the first half, Cutcliffe said he picked what he thought was UT's best play, a screen to Arian Foster. An assignment bust resulted in a loss. UT punted and California marched downfield for a touchdown before halftime.
``Our plan going in was to try to move the chains, get it to third-and-4 or 3, or 2 or 1, thinking we could convert 80 percent,'' Cutcliffe said. ``It blew up in our face four times in the first half.''
UT coaches contend that throwing on third-and-short does not indicate a lack of confidence in the offensive line.
``What I'd like to do is be able to line up and blow people back every time and run the ball,'' Cutcliffe said. ``But unfortunately, you look at pro football and college football, with the level of defensive players out there now, third-and-2 is not necessarily a run down anymore.
``You don't just line up and say we're going to make third-and-2 because of safeties and fits and gaps. There's nowhere to run sometimes, unless you're a whole lot better than the team you're playing and that rarely happens to us anymore with our schedule.''
It's tougher to run in short yardage without a powerful lead blocker, and UT hasn't had one of those since Will Bartholomew left after the 2001 season. In going more with the H-back, the Vols have lost some punch.
Maybe Tennessee should put at fullback an offensive lineman – like 330-pound Jacques McClendon - and let him be the lead blocker.
``We've talked about a lot of different things and that is one thing we've talked about,'' line coach Greg Adkins said.
Years ago in short yardage, UT would line up with two tight ends and run inside the tackles behind a strong lead blocker. Now days, UT has often gone with an empty backfield set or even the shotgun on third-and-short. And UT does more zone blocking. But Cutcliffe said the Vols aren't primarily a zone blocking team in short yardage.
``We're always going to do a combination,'' Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe said zone blocking is somewhat misunderstood. For example, in zone blocking, if a guard has a defensive linemen lined up in front of him, it becomes a drive block.
``It's a little bit misunderstood by most people,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Some people think you're blocking an area and you're soft. I don't want anything about our offense to be soft.''
When UT got the defensive look it wanted against Cal and ran the zone blocking scheme, the Vols averaged 7 yards per play, Cutcliffe said.
``We were getting double teams at the point of attack,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I probably didn't call that enough.''
Cutcliffe said two reasons he went away from the run in the second half were the Vols trailed and Erik Ainge's proficiency. Ainge completed 29 of 37 passes in the first three quarters (78 percent). On the flip side, UT has won just four games in history when the quarterback attempted 45 or more passes. Ainge finished 32 of 47, hitting just 3 of his last 10 attempts.
While Cutcliffe said he should have run more, he didn't second guess himself for not running on third and short.
``I don't ever think that way because I can't,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I can't wish I would have done something. Here's the thing about all this – you can't ever assume if I'd run, it would have worked.''
Extra points: Guard Chris Scott played better than UT expected and was a bright spot up front, Adkins said. … Cutcliffe said to be a great fourth quarter team ``you've got to practice from wire to wire.'' … UT gave up over 300 yards on first down plays against Cal. … Because Ainge has had trouble with some throws due to the broken finger, Cutcliffe said he kept about 10 notes in front of him as a reminder during the Cal game. That also makes it more challenging for Cutcliffe to call plays. … Cutcliffe said he's reluctant to give players game time if they don't practice well. He said one player was inserted into the Cal game because of an injury to another player and had four or five busts. ``You perform on the practice field,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I don't like the statement, `Well, when the lights come on, coach, I'm going to be ready.' Well, be ready on Tuesday afternoon. Preparation is a big deal.''