Hitting High Gear

It doesn't make fans jump from their seats and cheer at the top of their lungs, neither does it make the highlight reels or is it the subject of Monday morning water cooler klatches, but the four-yard dive off tackle is the very source from which Tennessee's offense flows.

It makes possible the deep play-action passes, the thrilling cutback dashes and the exhilarating reverse runs. It also restores the intimidation factor and gives the O-line its swagger. It keeps the offense out of bad down and distance situations that often lead to turnovers or mistakes. It takes the starch out of home crowds. It may not be exciting to watch but it's excruciating to stop and performed often enough will wear a defense down or force it to take extreme measures to defend. Either way it adds up to success.

The concept is simple if you don't take the four yards too literally. The goal is to gain four yards per carry allowing the offense to deal with a third and two rather than a third and ten. In order to work it requires good line surge, tough backs willing to attack the defensive front and a patient play-caller who knows if he sticks to the run it will eventually pay big dividends.

That's exactly what David Cutcliffe did against Mississippi State. It would have been easy for him to abandon the strategy after the Vols only gained 9 yards in 7 carries in the first quarter. Instead he stuck with it and the numbers began to rise. In the second quarter the Vols gained 59 yards in 8 carries. In the third quarter they gained 88 yards in 13 carries and they put the game away in the fourth quarter with 55 yards in 14 carries for an average of 4.1 yards in the final stanza. Moreover the Vols controlled the ball for 9:54 of the fourth quarter. That's the type of war of attrition Tennessee regularly won when it was a top 10 fixture and title contender.

The strategy paid off as the Vols averaged 5.0 yards per carry for the game. It also set up UT's two largest gains of the day — a 51-yard Eric Ainge to Lucas Taylor TD pass off a play action fake and a beautiful 39-yard cutback run by Arian Foster in which the defense over pursued to stop the short gain. Finally it prevented Mississippi State from sustaining any momentum and enabled the Vols to maintain drives and move within field-goal range even when they didn't reach the red zone.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Mississippi State game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.

OFFENSIVE LINE (93) Another good day at the office for an offensive line that is coming together as a unit and improving each game. Bigger tests await but if this group can continue to progress opportunities are abundant. Eric Young, a five-star high school all-American, is having his best season helping fill the gaping hole left by Arron Sears. Chris Scott is another all-American who is also beginning to reach the potential projected for him when he signed in 2005. The third all-American in UT's starting five is Josh McNeil who is becoming the O-line's anchor. It takes time for any prospect to excel in the trenches of the SEC, just as it takes time for a line to play as a unit. Greg Atkins' charges are getting there. The next two weeks should tell us if they have arrived.

RUNNING BACKS (90) Arian Foster continues to impress with his combination of power, vision, cutback ability and physical toughness. Has a style similar to former Vol great James Stewart. His production — 139 yards and a touchdown in 21 carries for a 6.8 yard average — speaks to his consistency. Montario Hardesty (78 yards in 16 carries — stepped up his game. There weren't many carries left for LaMarcus Coker (6 yards in two carries). Still waiting for someone to that home run ala Johnnie Jones, Chuck Webb, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, Travis Stephens. This week would be a good time to break one.

QUARTERBACK (87) Eric Ainge did a lot of things right against Mississippi State especially keeping the offense in rhythm and humming. Nice touch on the deep ball to L.T. Good job going through his progressions and finding the open receiver. He had a couple of forced passes one which resulted in an interception. Still he delivers the type of performance you would expect from a four-year starter.

RECEIVERS (82) Lucas Taylor gets an A+ for his 11 catches 186 yards and a touchdown. A real breakout performance that demonstrated his versatility and big play ability. He may not be a go-to receiver yet but he certainly was against Mississippi State. H-back Chris Brown had four catches for 26 yards and a touchdown. Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe combined for five catches and 38 yards. Rogers dropped a couple of passes including touchdown throw and Briscoe accounted for only 10 yards offense.

OVERALL (88) Probably the Vols best offensive effort this season although it didn't come against their toughest opponent. Tennessee is averaging 37.6 points per game over the current three-game winning streak. This score would have been much higher if UT had been able to turn a couple of those field goals into touchdowns.

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