Can O-line carry Vols again?

Offensive tackle Will Ofenheusle remembers the precise moment that Tennessee's football season turned around. That would be the closing minutes of the Vol-South Carolina game at Columbia, when Tennessee ate up 8:38 of clock time on a 17-play, 90-yard march that produced the clinching touchdown in an 18-10 victory.

''The South Carolina game, we made a 92-yard drive and ate up 8 minutes of the clock -- passed the ball twice,'' Ofenheusle said recently. ''That's your offensive line, tight end and running back getting it done. From then on, I think we (offensive linemen) became the strong suit of the team. They rode us pretty good.''

Tennessee's offensive line was supposed to be a strong suit this fall but struggled with nagging injuries and inconsistency throughout the first seven games. Once it jelled, however, the line played pretty well down the stretch.

''That's how we wanted it to be all season but we didn't go out there and prove it on the field first,'' Ofenheusle said. ''It took the game at South Carolina to do that. Then we did it again against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.''

After rushing for just 59 yards in Game 7 against Alabama, Tennessee ran for 241 yards against Carolina in Game 8, for 141 against Miami in Game 9, for 232 vs. Mississippi State in Game 10, for 242 against Vanderbilt in Game 11 and for 155 vs. Kentucky in Game 12. What happened to spark the turnaround?

''I think it was a case of us wanting to carry the team on our shoulders,'' Ofenheusle said. ''You can talk about it all you want, but you've got to go out there and prove it.''

Tight end Jason Witten thought the blocking was particularly outstanding in the final three games -- Mississippi State, Vandy and Kentucky.

'I think we really came together,'' he said. ''I know the Mississippi State game they had nine guys up there (in the box) and we were trying to block them. I think we were pretty successful. We had the mindset that that's what we had to do. It was a little frustrating because I wondered why we couldn't do that at the beginning of the year. But we played well the last three games.''

The question is: Can the Vol blockers play well enough to neutralize star linebacker E.J. Henderson and beat the Maryland Terrapins in the Peach Bowl?

''They have the best defensive player in the country, and their whole defense kind of feeds off him,'' Ofenheusle said. ''We're going to have our hands full stopping him, but I think we have enough bullets in our guns.''

Indeed. With tailback Cedric Houston and quarterback Casey Clausen healthy simultaneously for one of the few times this year, Tennessee should be able to run AND pass reasonably well. That makes things easier for the blockers.

''Whatever it takes to win ... we're all about that,'' Ofenheusle said. ''We're just glad the last three or four games we were actually running the ball.''


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