Tennessee Stat Book
Dave Hooker audio
Mississippi State Bulldogs
For tailback Montario Hardesty, the bottom line for Tennessee is simple when it comes to a floundering run game.
"We've just got to be more productive," Hardesty said Sunday night. "That's it."
Pretty much anything would be more productive than what Tennessee got done on the ground in a 26-14 loss at 10th-ranked Georgia on Saturday.
The Vols (2-4, 0-3 SEC) had 1 net yard rushing, its lowest total since finishing with minus-11 yards in a one-point loss to Florida in 2006.
UT's recent struggles on the ground are more than a head-scratcher for coach Phillip Fulmer.
"Early in the year, that was kind of our bread and butter," Fulmer said. "We were able to run the football some. We've got to get back to that. This very multiple Mississippi State defense will be a challenge that way."
Mississippi State brings the nation's No. 3 pass defense to Knoxville for Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff (TV: Pay-per-view), however the Bulldogs are allowing opponents an average of 156.2 yards rushing per game.
"They got a good defense," Hardesty said. "They're definitely physical, but we just need to go into this week and get us better, worry about Tennessee."
There's certainly enough to worry about in the running game.
The Vols ran the ball well early in the season, averaging 165.7 yards through their first four games.
Against Florida and Auburn, owners of the SEC's No. 3 and No. 5 rushing defenses, respectively, Tennessee ran for a combined 220 yards. The last two weeks against Georgia and Northern Illinois, the Vols had a total of 70.
There's plenty of blame to go around.
UT's veteran offensive line has struggled in recent weeks.
Its passing game didn't make Georgia pay for bringing extra players to stop the run. Its defense couldn't get the ball back for the offense.
Partly because Tennessee fell behind early and couldn't keep Georgia's offense off the field late, tailbacks Arian Foster, Lennon Creer and Hardesty combined for 11 carries that resulted in 25 yards.
"We had 11 tries," Fulmer said. "Eleven pure runs called. That's not nearly enough."
Hardesty said Tennessee's tailbacks didn't do enough on the few occassions they touched the ball.
"There's a couple plays where running backs, we didn't hit our proper landmarks on zone plays," said Hardesty, who led UT with six carries for 20 yards against Georgia. "We've just got to be more dynamic as a group running the ball. You can blame other stuff for it, but as running backs we got to look at ourselves in the eyes and make sure we're doing as much as we can to be the best running backs we can be."
According to guard Anthony Parker, a preseason All-SEC and All-America selection, the Vols' offensive line needs to improve, too.
"The ball's not bouncing our way at times, but that goes back to fundamentals and getting the job done in fundamentals," Parker said. "Go back to the practice field and work hard at whatever's beating us over the head and get it fixed."
Fixing UT's running game is imperative, says quarterback Nick Stephens.
"When we're not running the ball well, we have to throw the ball well and vice versa," he said. "It's nice to have a running game to help throw the ball. We've got to find a way to have the ball in our hands more and it starts with running the ball and all around getting better."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.