Tackling the Tide

An unwelcomed foe found its way on the field when Tennessee played at Mississippi State on Saturday: Missed tackles.

On Tennessee's first defensive series, the Vols missed four tackles. They missed several more in the first half before settling down in the second half.

``They (Bulldogs) got the ball on the perimeter a couple of times from misalignments, a couple of young guys didn't adjust well,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.

``Guys gave us some bad angles, they had a big strong back and we just kind of melted off him. When he got to running laterally (in the second half) we tackled better.''

Mississippi State had 99 rushing yards in the first half but just 36 in the second half. No. 20 Tennessee (4-2) will have to tackle better against Alabama (5-2) this Saturday (12:37 p.m. EDT kickoff).

Alabama has a better offense than Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide has as good of an offensive line, a better quarterback in John Parker Wilson, better receivers in DJ Hall (Alabama's all-time leader in receptions), Keith Brown and Mike McCoy, and a scat back in Terry Grant.

Maybe you can blame UT's poor early tackling as much on not being ready to play as it was misalignments. The Vols certainly weren't as sharp as they were against Georgia the week before.

That won't be an excuse against Alabama. Fulmer will emphasize to his team how important he thinks the Alabama game is.

``I think it's the greatest rivalry in all of college football,'' Fulmer said.

Fulmer is 11-3-1 against Alabama.


Fulmer said there is a three-prong reason why Tennessee has averaged 196.7 rushing yards in its last three games compared to 113.7 in the first three.

One, a commitment to the run. Two, improved blocking by the line. Three, the running of Arian Foster (237 yards in his last two games) and Montario Hardesty (146 yards in the last two games).

``We're calling the run more, which is a plus,'' Fulmer said. ``We ran the ball well against Cal, we just didn't call it a whole bunch. We didn't run it particularly well against Florida. We probably outsmarted ourselves there.''

Tennessee has hiked it's per attempt average to 4.5 with Foster at 5.5 and Hardesty at 4.5. LaMarcus Coker, who had 101 yards against Arkansas State but 39 in the other games combined, is at 4.1.

``We're always looking to be as balanced as we can be,'' Fulmer said.

That's the refrain used often by David Cutcliffe, UT's offensive coordinator, who, a couple of times this season, has said he should have called more runs.

``David understands that (balance) more than anybody,'' Fulmer said. ``We've been about as balanced (the last three games) as we've been in a while.''

UT, which averaged 108 rushing yards per game last season, is up to 155.

Foster is averaging 89.0 yards per game, sixth in the SEC. He is 17th on UT's career rushing list with 1,735 yards.


Jonathan Hefney gave UT a lift in the punt return game.

Hefney, in a season-long slump, had five returns for 64 yards with a long of 35. He had about 15 yards wiped out by a late second quarter penalty.

Hefney had averaged 2.7 yards on seven runbacks after ranking as one of the SEC's top punt return men the previous two seasons.

Fulmer thinks Hefney could be the difference in some close games if he continues to be a weapon.

``Yes sir,'' Fulmer said. ``That's going to be very important for us, if he continues on the path he's on. He's handling himself better.''

Hefney had four runbacks for minus-17 yards against Arkansas State, then, in a timid performance against Georgia, fair caught a ball with about 10-12 yards of running room. Fulmer said he truest Hefney and he'd rather the senior be too conservative than ``do something crazy.''

If he could average double figures the rest of the season, that could give the Vols' the winning edge in some close games.

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