UT in freefall minus fastball

Today's sports quiz: What did Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan have that the Tennessee football team desperately lacks?

Answer: A fastball. That's how come Johnson, Feller, Gibson, Koufax and Ryan are in the Hall of Fame, while the Vols are in the throes of a mind-boggling offensive slump.

Whereas the pitchers mentioned above could count on a fastball to win games, the Football Vols have nothing so dependable they can hang their hats on. And that, offensive coordinator Dave Clawson says, is the primary reason the Big Orange ranks 11th among the 12 SEC teams in both total offense (280.6 yards per game) and scoring offense (18.4 points per game).

"Every good offense has a fastball – something they do extremely well, week in and week out," Clawson said earlier today. "Everything you do offensively comes off your ability to do that one thing well ... whether it forces defensive adjustments, whether it forces one-on-one coverage or whether it forces people to spread out.

"To me, the biggest offensive disappointment this year is I don't know if there's one thing right now that we do exceptionally well."

With all five starters returning in the offensive line, along with 1,000-yard rusher Arian Foster, Tennessee projected to be a superior running team this fall. Except for games against UCLA (177 yards), UAB (266) and Mississippi State (139), however, the ground attack has been a flop as the Vols have struggled to a 3-5 start.

"Every offense has to be based on the strengths of your personnel," Clawson said. "We really went into the season believing our strength on the offensive line and at running back could carry us until we got some experience at quarterback and some of the other skill positions.... We have run the ball well at times but not consistently enough to say, 'That's our bread and butter. Try and stop us.'"

Tennessee's offense has been especially lame in SEC play. It mustered just 6 points vs. Florida, 12 vs. Auburn, 14 vs. Georgia, 20 vs. Mississippi State and 9 vs. Alabama. Things don't look awfully promising this week, either, with the Vols visiting South Carolina, which ranks No. 4 nationally in total defense.

"I can't tell you that we're going to line up this week and be able to knock them off the ball and hang our hat on the run game," Clawson said. "We did think for a couple of weeks that we could do that, then we didn't do it well at Georgia."

That might be the understatement of the year. Tennessee managed just one net rushing yard against the Bulldogs in Game 6. The Vols weren't much better last Saturday in Game 8, mustering a mere 36 net yards vs. Alabama.

"Last week we didn't run the ball well at all," Clawson conceded. "When your longest run of the day is a quarterback scramble, that's usually not a good sign."

No one is more surprised – or more concerned – about Tennessee's inability to run the ball effectively than head coach Phillip Fulmer. As a former UT offensive lineman and offensive line coach, his fondness for "pounding the rock" is well documented.

"One of the things most people in this league would tell you is that most years we'll have a physical running attack," Fulmer said. "You'd better anchor down and be ready to stop that."

Although his 2007 Vols also struggled to run the ball effectively against quality teams, they compensated by throwing the ball with considerable success. Fulmer noted that the key in '07 was that "a couple of receivers that had never been particularly heard of – (Josh) Briscoe, (Austin) Rogers and Lucas (Taylor) – came through with huge years for us."

None of the receivers are having big years in 2008, however. That's why opposing defenses continue to crowd the line of scrimmage and dare Tennessee to throw the ball.

"Teams have chosen – as Alabama did – to commit extra people (in the box) to make sure we don't start running the football," Fulmer said. "Until we make people pay with some big plays (in the passing game), that's probably going to continue."

Clawson conceded as much, noting that the Vols have been "inconsistent in our execution, really, with all aspects of the game."

Because Tennessee has no fastball to fall back on, play-calling has been a real challenge for the first-year coordinator.

"It certainly makes it tougher," Clawson said. "You like to go in and say, 'This is our core offense. These things we're going to be able to carry week to week to week because we're really very good at it and we do it well. The years that I've coached successful offenses you carry that core because it's working.

"Right now we go into games with some thoughts. A lot of the thoughts we had going into Alabama were carryovers because of things we executed well against Mississippi State, which is one of the top 24 defenses in the country. But we didn't play as well and Alabama played better against us than Mississippi State did."

Naturally, as Tennessee's scoring average continues to drop, the stress level continues to rise.

"We haven't been able to find any consistency and identity to this point," Fulmer said. "That has been frustrating."

Finding consistency and an identity would be a lot easier, of course, if the Vols could first find their fastball.

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