Pressure situation

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge had his two least productive passing performances of the year in Games 9 and 10, and Game 11 might not be much better.

After throwing for a season-low 125 yards in Game 9 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette and 128 more in Game 10 vs. Arkansas, Ainge will be facing a Vanderbilt team this Saturday that features a relentless pass rush and a feisty secondary. That combination of factors could mean another so-so day for the Vols' air attack.

The Commodores rank No. 2 among SEC teams in sacks with 27. This will challenge Tennessee's blockers to protect the passer. The Commodores also play aggressive press coverage. This will challenge Tennessee's receivers to get separation – something they have not done well in recent weeks.

The combination of zone blitzing and tight press coverage is not unique to Vanderbilt, of course.

"We see it every week," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said, "but some people do it better than others. Vanderbilt does it very well."

Sophomore cornerback D.J. Moore is a rising star for the Commodores. The 5-10-, 180-pounder ranks second on the team in tackles (72) and pass breakups (8), while leading the team in interceptions (5).

The rest of the Vandy secondary is big and physical. Free safety Ryan Hamilton (6-2, 208) is fourth in tackles with 55, with four tackles for loss, a fumble forced and five pass breakups. Cornerback Myron Lewis (6-3, 195) and strong safety Rashard Langford (6-2, 207) round out the first-team defensive backfield.

"Both safeties are good tacklers, and the corners are good cover guys," Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "I think Moore is as good a corner as there is in this league, period. And they play really well together."

Ainge completed just 12 of 25 passes last weekend, partly because his receivers struggled to get open against a rugged Razorback secondary. When asked what the Vols must do Saturday in order to combat Vandy's press coverage, UT receivers coach Trooper Taylor smiled.

"It's more in tune to the quarterback and receivers being on the same page," he said. "When you get press coverage, the timing has to be the same. That's why you play it (press coverage) – because it has a chance to disrupt the timing between the quarterback and wideouts. That's the biggest key – the ball being thrown and the guys separating and being on the same page."

Tennessee's receivers are not particularly big and physical. The obvious concern: Are they tough enough to beat Vandy's press coverage?

"I don't think press coverage has to do with toughness as much as it has to do with being able to get on top of somebody and separate at the right time," Taylor said.

The Vol aide noted that when UT struggled against press coverage a year ago it was because "you were worried about the blitz and the quarterback getting the ball out of his hands. Because of the protection we've gotten this year and Ainge being more comfortable back there, we're able to finish the routes, get open and make the plays.

"And (it helps) being able to run the football. When those guys (DBs) are peeking inside, thinking they may have to go tackle a running back, that helps you get open."

Tennessee's chances of exploiting Vandy's press coverage would be greatly enhanced if Lucas Taylor were 100 percent healthy. He caught 41 passes in the first six games this fall, then suffered a turf-toe injury that has limited him to just 15 receptions in the four games since.

"His toe is going to be sore; it's not something that's going to heal up," Trooper Taylor said. "He's playing with a plate inside his shoe and he's doing the best he can."

With Lucas Taylor hobbled, Tennessee needs big games from receivers Austin Rogers, Josh Briscoe and Quintin Hancock. Otherwise, the Vol passing game could struggle against the Commodores' combination of zone blitz and press coverage.

"It's a big challenge because they know what they're doing and they do it very well," Fulmer said. "You get into a little bit of a chess game with them but that's the college football world now."

Although Vandy's pass-defense package is a good one, it isn't air-tight. Florida torched the 'Dores for 288 yards On Nov. 3 and South Carolina burned Vandy for 256 yards on Oct. 20.

"There's holes in it," Fulmer said. "We've got to find the holes."


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