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Fulmer’s group hug pays off as Vols stay focused in win

Fulmer’s group hug pays off as Vols stay focused in win
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer knew his Volunteers needed to relax if they were going to rebound from a rough start to the season.

He could sense some tension in his players before leaving their practice facility to make the traditional “Vol Walk” into Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

“I told them, ‘Stand up. You have three or four minutes. Go and hug everybody in this room,’” he said. “They got up and hugged everyone in the room.

“It just broke the ice.”

It apparently worked. The Vols (2-2) appeared more relaxed than they have all season in their 48-27 win over Arkansas State (1-2) on Saturday night.

Erik Ainge threw for four touchdowns and a career-high 334 yards and led a balanced offensive attack. He finished 28-for-40 with an interception.

Lucas Taylor caught touchdown passes of 17 yards and 24 yards and had his third triple-digit receiving game with 104 yards on seven catches. LaMarcus Coker caught a 25-yarder for a TD and scored on a 2-yard run and ran for 101 yards.
Daniel Lincoln completed his seventh and eighth straight field goals of 29 and 39 yards, giving him the best season start for a Tennessee kicker in school

Even though Tennessee’s only two losses this season have been to top 10 teams, the Vols have had a knack for beating themselves by allowing opponents big plays and turnovers, struggling in short-yardage situations and failing to open up the running game.

Tennessee improved in its running game with a season-high 188 yards against the Indians.

The Vols also had 12 first downs in the first quarter after having only 14 in the entire 59-20 loss at No. 4 Florida. They finished with 30 first downs, the most since they had 34 against Kentucky in 2004.

But the Vols still have mistakes to eliminate if they want to make it through the heart of their Southeastern Conference schedule with minimal damage. Tennessee faces No. 15 Georgia in two weeks after an off date and before heading to Mississippi State and No. 22 Alabama.

Arkansas State pulled within 3 points in the second quarter when Tyrell Johnson intercepted Ainge’s pass intended for Chris Brown and ran it back 54 yards for a touchdown.

“With the exception of that turnover, we did a good job on offense,” Ainge said. “It wasn’t perfect, but we had guys make plays and it is all up from here.”

Tennessee allowed Arkansas State’s Corey Leonard passes of 48 and 45 yards and a Reggie Arnold rush of 44 yards. Leonard threw for one touchdown and was 18-for-35 with 199 yards passing and two interceptions and Arnold rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown.

Tennessee also continued to struggle on special teams, allowing a 37-yard kickoff return from Brandon Thompkins who set a school record 194 yards returning eight kickoffs.

But the Vols’ defense, which entered the game ranked 102nd nationally, limited Arkansas State to 377 yards, the Indians’ lowest total this season, which has included a win against SMU and a near upset of No. 7 Texas.

Robert Ayers had a career-high six tackles and doubled Tennessee’s sack total for the season by bringing down Leonard twice. Brent Vinson and Marsalous Johnson each picked him off.

It wasn’t just the Tennessee players who relaxed on the field: the coaches seemed calmer after the solid win.

Fulmer sounded more upbeat in his post-game press conference than he’s sounded all season.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said he’s never seen Fulmer call for a pre-game group hug but was glad he did.

“I was sitting in the back of the room not feeling too good myself,” he said. “It was a good moment. It reminds you of who you’re in the room with and the commitment that so many people have made.”

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