Game recap: LSU 38, Tennessee 7
Box score: UT vs. LSU
Tennessee Stat Book
The final numbers were still below average, but for Tennessee, it was a major sign of progress.
After two games where they failed to even finish with positive rushing yards, the Vols needed some sort of positivity to build on with their stagnant running game. They got just that during the first half of Saturday's 38-7 loss to No. 1 LSU at Neyland Stadium.
Boosted by a refreshed attitude, a strong effort from a hobbled senior and even a new quarterback, the Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) finished with 111 yards on 29 attempts. Thanks to a first-half kneel-down, their average yards per carry fell below 4, but opponents have certainly done worse against the Tigers (7-0, 4-0), who came into Saturday's game ranked fourth in the country in rush defense.
"We just basically decided as an offense we were going to run it down their throats," left guard Alex Bullard said. "We got on our man. It wasn't perfect, but we were able to get all 11 guys doing our jobs. That's something we haven't done consistently throughout the year that we did a little bit better of a job today."
Though there were the usual mishaps and negative yardage blunders, the Vols' only scoring drive of the game provided a handful of positive highlights they'll have a chance to analyze before next week's trip to No. 2 Alabama, which boasts the nation's top rushing defense.
Following the Vols' longest offensive play of the game, a 44-yard catch-and-run pass from Matt Simms to Da'Rick Rogers midway through the second quarter, the Vols retreated to the sidelines for a timeout. Unlike the first quarter, when Simms followed up a long completion to Rajion Neal with another deep ball that wound up intercepted, the Vols refocused their efforts to the ground.
"I said to all the guys in the huddle, 'This is our chance to prove it right now that we can run the ball,' " right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "If we get yards on this, it will keep giving us chances and we kept driving it down on that drive."
The next five plays were hard to decipher from one another. For once, that was a good thing.
Tauren Poole, who was hobbled at practice all week by a sore hamstring, ran for 6 yards, 8 yards, 7 yards, 4 yards and 4 yards to put UT on the Tigers' 5-yard line. Following a LSU pass interference on third down, Poole punched in a touchdown from 2 yards out and gave UT its only dose of momentum for the entire game.
"The greatest feeling for the offensive line is moving the man past his will," James said. "That's what we tried to do on that drive."
Coach Derek Dooley said Poole, who leads the Vols with 395 yards on the season, was "focused" and wasn't going out of his way to make big plays. He also praised freshman Marlin Lane, who had been running timidly in the Vols' previous games but finished Saturday with six carries for 43 yards.
"If we continue that path, we're going to be fine in the run game," Dooley said.
An unexpected contributor to the running game, though, might have been Simms.
Dooley said Simms gave the Vols "some better looks" when he approached the line of scrimmage with a handful of options at his disposal. James said the difference was noticeable, as Simms always seemed to pick the right play at the right time, especially on the Vols' scoring drive.
"We had a game plan that we want to go up there and look to see what they were doing," Bullard said. "He was able to check the plays to what we did.
"He just did his job of what he was coached to do. That's what we have to continue to do."
Afterward, Simms was more focused on his 6-of-20 passing effort, which he described only as "terrible," but he was able to acknowledge at least one positive contribution he provided.
"Overall," he said, "I did an OK job with (run checks) today."
When it pertains to the Vols' running game, "OK" is a step in the right direction.