KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee finally has a full stable of talented running backs. That didn't quite translate into a good night of running in the Volunteers' season opener, though.
"What we have to do is turn that ability into production, and we haven't done that yet," coach Derek Dooley said. "It will come in time. We have to be patient. We act like our offensive line is the Green Bay Packers. These guys are four sophomores and a junior, and it's hard. It's hard to play up front. It takes time. It takes reps. They're going to be there, but I don't know when."
Tennessee's running game stumbled through a 42-16 win against the Football Championship Subdivision's Montana last Saturday. The Vols ran the ball 46 times for 128 yards and a meager 2.8-yards per attempt average compared to 311 yards by the air on 25 passes.
It was only a small step up from a season ago, when the Vols averaged 109.2 yards rushing per game behind an offensive line stocked with true freshmen.
Senior tailback Tauren Poole had a decent outing against the Grizzlies with 98 yards and a touchdown on 24 touches, a 4.1-yards-per-carry average, but Dooley didn't get the explosive plays on the ground that he hoped to see. Freshman Marlin Lane had 35 yards and a touchdown, and sophomore Rajion Neal and freshman Tom Smith combined for 13 yards playing with the second-string offense late in the game.
"They whipped us at the line of scrimmage the whole game," Dooley said. "They are a veteran team with some big, physical guys, and we did not run (the ball) the way it needed to be run."
Poole and Lane combined for three of Tennessee's six fumbles, all of which were recovered by the Vols. Poole also couldn't get out of the end zone when the Vols were lined up on their own 1-yard line and was dropped for a safety that cut Tennessee's lead to 28-9 in the third quarter.
Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney agree that the problems on the ground aren't because of lack of ability but rather inconsistent play and mental errors across the entire offense.
"Occasionally we would get a good push and maybe miss a read," Chaney said. "We'd get a good push and a good read and we'd mess up the perimeter blocking. I was thinking on Sunday I'd be able to come in here and yell at one segment of the offense. I was really disappointed. There wasn't one of them that did very good in the running game. The running backs, the o-line, tight ends, wideouts — it was a unanimous decision that everybody on any given play were making too many mistakes."
Junior tight end Mychal Rivera said it's just a matter of a little more effort on the part of him and his teammates.
"I feel we need to improve on our physicality up front," Rivera said. "The o-linemen and myself, tight ends, fullbacks, everybody needs to fire out and finish their blocks. That was one thing that we saw when we were evaluating film. The last two seconds of the play, if we strained just a little harder, I feel Tauren and Marlin and those guys could gain a few more yards."
On Saturday, the Vols host Cincinnati (1-0), a team that routed Austin Peay 72-10 in its season opener. The Bearcats defense was the least experienced among BCS teams a season ago, but the entire lineup has returned for the 2011 season.
Cincinnati coach Butch Jones knows the level of competition the Vols offer will be a step up from last week, even with an offense that's not fully developed.
"The speed of the game changes," Jones said. "The opponent changes, the level of competition. The speed level, everything now goes to the next level."