Passing on the pass

Two games into the 2008 season Tennessee's offense is remarkably balanced – 75 rushing attempts and 75 passing attempts, 221.5 rushing yards per game and 235.5 rushing yards per game.

So, what has this exquisite balance gotten the Vols? An overtime loss to a mediocre UCLA team, a lethargic defeat of a woeful UAB team and a fan base that believes the Big Orange has one chance to beat Florida this weekend: Pound the rock.

Certainly, there are compelling arguments that quarterback Jonathan Crompton's right arm should be limited to handing off the football – not throwing it – Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.

For instance:

- The Vols are averaging almost as many yards per carry (5.9) as they are yards per pass attempt (6.3).

- The Vols have scored five touchdowns rushing, just two touchdowns passing.

- The Vols have lost just one fumble in 75 rush attempts, while losing three interceptions in 75 pass attempts.

- Tennessee has four running backs who are averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry, compared to one quarterback who is completing 52.8 percent of his passes.

- Running the ball eats up the clock and reduces the number of possessions the explosive Gator offense will get.

- Putting the game on the shoulders of Arian Foster, who has 25 career starts, seems more sensible than putting the game on the shoulders of Crompton, who has three career starts.

All of the above has led participants on call-in shows and message boards throughout The Vol Nation to adopt a single theme: "Run the ball down Florida's throat. It's that simple."

Phillip Fulmer begs to differ. He insists it's not that simple. The Vols' head man says the Gators give ground grudgingly.

"They do a really nice job of getting eight people committed to the run in different ways ... no different than we try to," Fulmer said, adding that the continued use of eight men in the box depends on "the outcomes on the outside (receivers vs. defensive backs) and who can win those matchups."

The obvious question: Can Tennessee win those matchups?

"We've GOT to win some of 'em," Fulmer replied. "If you get a deep ball, you only have to win so many of them."

Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson agrees that running the ball down Florida's throat – for all of its potential pluses – is not as viable an option as it might seem.

"I don't think there's too many teams that can consistently win by doing one thing well," he said. "There's maybe Texas Tech (passing) at one end and Georgia Tech at the other (running). Most football teams have to have balance."

Smash-mouth football, he believes, is particularly difficult to rely on in the rugged Southeastern Conference.

"I don't think we're going to be able to line up with two backs and pound teams – be one-dimensional – and win games in the SEC," Clawson said. "On the other hand, with our personnel right now in the offensive line and running back, we are SET UP to run the football. But it's important that we are able to do both."

Even so, the coordinator concedes that running the ball is "a matter of being committed to it," and suggests that he will be committed to it as long as Saturday's score permits.

"The game dictates how patient you can be with it," he said. "I was watching the Mississippi State-Auburn game the other night, and the two teams stuck with the run because it was a 3-0 and 3-2 game. If the score allows you to do that, and that's what your strength is, you stay with it. But sometimes the score doesn't allow you to do that."

Down-and-distance also has major impact on a play-caller's patience.

"Third-and-seven-plus is a very hard down to convert," Clawson noted. "I think the NFL conversion rate for that is under 20 percent. But if you get it to third-and-six, third-and-four, third-and-three, now you've got a chance to keep the chains moving and to have balance."

Teams that rely heavily on the run tend to get big plays from the ground game from time to time. Conversely, Tennessee's longest gain in the last two meetings with Florida was a mere six yards.

Clawson grinned smugly when told of this statistic.

"So," he quipped, "if we rip off a seven-yarder that'll be a game-breaker."

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