Ainge may be key for Vol D

The key figure in Tennessee's attempt to slow down a high-scoring Arkansas attack this Saturday may not be playing defense.

The key figure could be Erik Ainge. And, no, the 6-6, 225-pounder isn't moving to outside linebacker. He'll be lining up at quarterback, as usual. But his ability to sustain time-consuming drives can limit the Razorbacks' possessions and their scoring opportunities. That may be Tennessee's best defense against an Arkansas offense that leads the SEC in scoring (41.1 points per game) and ranks second nationally in rushing (315.8 yards per game).

"I didn't play great (two weeks ago) against South Carolina, and then last week (in a 59-7 blowout of Louisiana Lafayette) I really didn't have to do much myself to get the win," Ainge said. "But all of that doesn't really matter. Obviously, in a game like this I'm going to have to play well if we're going to win. That's a fact."

Indeed. The Vols' best bet to stop Arkansas from scoring 48 points – as it did last weekend against South Carolina – is to play "keep-away" by controlling the ball for long stretches and keeping the Razorbacks' star tailback off the field.

"Everybody knows how good number 5 is," Ainge said, referring to Darren McFadden, who tied the SEC's single-game rushing record with 321 yards last weekend vs. South Carolina. "You can't just let him run around and waste all the clock. We need to keep the ball. The defense needs to get off the field on third down; that's huge. And when we have it on third down we need to convert."

Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer touched on the same theme, noting: "You keep the ball any way you can – the possession passing game and running the football."

Tennessee is running the football better lately. Arian Foster and Lennon Creer posted 100-yard days and the Vols averaged an imposing 7.0 per carry en route to 273 yards in last Saturday's beat-down of Louisiana-Lafayette.

"We ran the ball well last week," Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe conceded, "but this is a new defense, a lot more difficult defense to run against. Playing against the best rushing team in America in my opinion, hopefully, we can find a way to run the ball. In this league often-times the team that runs the ball best wins."

After rushing for just 37 yards in a Game 3 loss at Florida, the Vols have run for at least 100 yards in every game since.

"I think our team believes they can run the football," Cutcliffe said. "We've continued to get better since the open date. We've been somewhat more consistent running the football, and that's been a big positive in us playing a little better."

Arkansas's run defense is light years ahead of Louisiana-Lafayette's, of course. Moreover, the Razorbacks will be crowding the line of scrimmage to try and take away the Vol ground attack.

"We'll be really challenged to run the ball against a very aggressive defense," Cutcliffe said. "We've GOT to be successful throwing the ball in this one to have a chance to run the football."

To be successful throwing the ball, of course, Tennessee needs a big game from its quarterback. Thus, Ainge just might be the Vols' defensive MVP this weekend.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories