Can air game bounce back vs. MSU?

Tennessee's erratic running game has caught most of the heat this fall, yet the Vol passing game was a virtual no-show in last weekend's 26-3 loss to Miami. Quarterbacks Casey Clausen, James Banks and C.J. Leak combined to complete just eight of 21 attempts for 77 yards. In addition, the trio was sacked seven times.

The Vols must throw and catch much better if they are to beat Mississippi State this Saturday in Starkville. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders thinks they will. He thinks the problems that surfaced against Miami can be fixed.

''A couple of times nobody was open,'' Sanders said. ''A couple of times somebody was open but the quarterback was looking in the wrong place. A couple of times James, in particular, got more focused on the rush than he did on what was happening downfield. There's no one particular area we have to work on. It's a number of things.''

The main thing the Vols need to work on is getting Clausen's injured ankle healthy. Although he struggled last weekend (5 of 14 for 63 yards), he still was far more effective than Banks (2 of 5 for 8 yards) or Leak 1 of 2 for 6 yards). Additionally, UT's passing game is severely limited when either of the backups is behind center.

''When you call things the quarterback's comfortable with (for Banks or Leak), that makes you a little bit easier to cover downfield,'' Sanders said. ''That was a part of our problem.''

Because Banks and Leak are comfortable with only a small portion of UT's offensive package, they can run a very limited number of plays. This makes defensing Tennessee much easier.

''If you narrow it down to a pretty small package, it had better work,'' Sanders said. ''If it doesn't work, you don't have answers to go to. You try to identify what you really need to get good at, but you've got to have some answers also, in case those things don't work. You may have a primary package that's fairly narrow but you have to have some other things you've done during the week that you can go to ... just in case.''

Given Tennessee's offensive shortcomings -- even with Clausen at the throttle -- there is considerable pressure on the Vol defense. Not only must UT defenders keep the opponent from scoring, they also must strive to give the Big Orange attack good field position.

''This week we've worked like heck to create more turnovers for the offense ... to give them a short field,'' Fulmer said.

Certainly, the Vol attack has struggled with a long field. Discounting a 74-yard run by Cedric Houston on UT's second snap of the Miami game, the Vols' longest drives last Saturday were 40 yards, 39 yards and 16 yards.

Fortunately for Tennessee, Mississippi State's offense is even weaker. The Bulldogs (3-6 overall, 0-5 SEC) trail UT in per-game scoring (23.3 points to 19.9), first downs (19.2 to 17.1), total offense (364.7 to 325.3), rushing yards (142.6 to 122.9) and passing yards (222.1 to 202.4).

Although Mississippi State has the homefield advantage this weekend, the benefit may be minimal. Tennessee tends to play better on the road than at home the past few seasons. Asked why this might be, Sanders surmised: ''Maybe it's Casey, because he really gets geared up to play on the road.''

Apparently so. Clausen is 22-6 as a starting quarterback, including a perfect 9-0 mark on the road. I'm assuming he'll play ... and I'm assuming his streak will continue.

My pick: Tennessee 17, Mississippi State 13.

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