Vols looking for big plays

Don't look for Tennessee's success running the football to continue this weekend against Kentucky. The Wildcats limited the Vols to 82 rushing yards last year, although UT had a superb tailback (Travis Stephens) running behind two star-quality blockers (Fred Weary, Reggie Coleman).

If the Vols couldn't run the ball effectively with that trio in the lineup, it's a safe bet they won't be able to run it effectively without them. That won't stop UT from trying, of course.

''You've got to try to pound the rock,'' Vol offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said this week, ''but sometimes they (Wildcats) put so many people in there that the rock's pretty big.''

The rock must've looked like a mountain in last year's game with Kentucky. That's why Sanders abandoned the ground game after three unproductive series.

''We came out last year and threw it the first play, ran it the second play and lost a couple of yards, then didn't convert on third-and-12,'' he recalled. ''The second series we didn't get much done on the run, then the third series we came out and ran it four times and didn't make 10 yards. That's pretty much when I decided I was through trying to run it. We were going to throw it the rest of the game.''

Once Sanders opted to put the ball in the air, Tennessee began to put points on the board. The Vols made enough big plays in the passing game to rally from a 21-0 deficit to win 38-35. Of course, the Big Orange had two of the NCAA's top big-play receivers last year -- Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington. Now that they have neither, big plays are in short supply.

''Obviously, some guys (receivers) have got to step up and we've got to try and get it done,'' Sanders said. ''That's the scary part: We're counting on guys to make plays who haven't necessarily made 'em.''

Tennessee's receivers have been particularly ineffective in the so-called Orange Area (inside the opponent's 20-yard line). That's one reason the Vols have struggled to score points this fall.

''When you get down where there's not a lot of space, that's where your playmakers have to step up and make plays,'' Sanders said. ''That's where we're missing guys making plays.''

The Vols nearly made a big play in the passing game last weekend vs. Vanderbilt. Freshman Jonathan Wade got open on a fly route but dropped a potential 54-yard touchdown pass from Casey Clausen. Sanders views the play with mixed emotions.

''It was encouraging that he was open,'' the coordinator said, ''but not very encouraging that he didn't catch it. He's done a good job catching those in practice. Hopefully, he'll learn from the experience and the next time that happens he'll make the catch for us.''

Because Kentucky crowds the line of scrimmage and dares opponents to throw the ball, the Wildcats are susceptible to the occasional big play. That's what Sanders hopes to exploit in Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium.

''Not many teams have had 10- or 12-play drives (against Kentucky),'' the coordinator said. ''It's usually been a 50- or 60-yard play. It's awfully hard if you don't make those big plays.''

Unfortunately for the Vols, it's awfully hard to make big plays without big-play people. With Stallworth in the NFL and Washington in rehabilitation for a neck injury, Tennessee isn't a team likely to connect on many big plays. Still, Sanders is optimistic.

''You have to be willing to take your shots,'' he said. ''If you hit those shots, it makes you a little more willing to take them again.''

I don't see the Vols hitting a lot of big plays this week. But I don't see Kentucky scoring a lot of points on a UT defense that has been remarkably stingy, despite an incredible rash of injuries. My guess is that this will be the most competitive, most exciting game of the season ... a game which won't be decided until the final minute.

My pick: Tennessee 24, Kentucky 20.


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