|Vols very reliant on Ainge’s arm |
| Ainge ya glad the Vols have Erik |
Where in the world would this Tennessee football team be this season without its senior gunslinger from the great Northwest under center? Your guess is as good as mine, but had he not lit up Arkansas State’s defense like a Times Square Christmas tree last Saturday evening, the Indians had enough offensive weapons to score at least 30. Yet, Ainge kept them at bay and playing catch-up for almost the entire ball game.
Ainge had one of the best single-game passing days in Tennessee history, performing laser surgery on the Indian secondary. The rangy rifleman clicked on 27-of-39 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns. Already this season, Ainge has completed over 100 passes, 108-of-163 to be exact, and has gone over the 1,000-yard mark for the year. He has thrown for 1,130 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 66.3 completion percentage keeps him on pace to finish his career as the Volunteer’s all-time top marksman.
And make no mistake about it, this young gun has little margin for error and he knows it. He must score early and often if this football team is to have a decent record come December. When a quarterback plays on a team that went into its last game with the 102nd rated defense out of 119 NCAA Division I football schools, every offensive possession is critical, every drive is pressure-packed out of need and every point is of paramount importance.
It is always very dicey when a football team must depend on its offense to carry the day, but that is the situation that Ainge and his comrades face, week in and week out. Ainge cheerfully accepts the challenge and would never complain, even knowing that there are so many more things that can interrupt offensive success than there is when one is examining defensive football.
Trying to lend a hand
Other players on the offensive unit are doing their very best to lend a hand. Junior tailback Arian Foster has run 59 times and churned out 297 of the toughest yards ever gained by a Big Orange tailback. Foster is almost on pace for a 1,000-yard rushing season, but it might really aid his cause if the coaches and offensive linemen figure out how to open some slivers or creases in the defensive front.
LaMarcus Coker had a big game against Arkansas State, but then he also had impressive numbers last season against some of the weaker teams on the Tennessee schedule. He ripped Marshall for 146 yards last year and waltzed through a Memphis defense for another 125. But against Georgia, Coker got only 57 yards on 12 carriers and Alabama throttled him completely, yielding the elusive Coker only 12 yards on five totes.
Junior wide receiver Lucas Taylor is beginning to flash some legitimate sparks. Taylor, the leading receiver on the team, has now latched onto 24 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns. His per catch average is a sparkling 15.9 yards.
Along with senior tight end Chris Brown and sophomore flanker Austin Rogers, Taylor gives Ainge a trio of pass catchers that are reliable, if not yet spectacular.
Puttin’ on Ayers
It would appear that four games into the season, the defensive staff and most notably coordinator John Chavis, have suddenly discovered that Robert Ayers is probably the best defensive end on the team.
Heading into the Arkansas State game, the Vol defense had an anemic total of only two quarterback sacks after three football games. Ayers doubled that total all by his lonesome last weekend. As has been the history with this coaching staff, senior Antonio Reynolds was given the job and started four consecutive games. Obviously, Reynolds is not quite the disruptive force that Ayers brings to the table when finally being unleashed to do his work.
While many in Big Orange Country proclaim that the fever is gone and the football team has returned to a picture of health, it must be noted here that the Southeastern Conference road ahead is strewn with pot holes and bushwhackers. Beating up on a Conference USA team — Southern Mississippi — and a Sun Belt Conference team — Arkansas State — is all well and good, but isn’t that what Tennessee football teams are supposed to do?
The next four games will tell you all you need to know about the direction of the 2007 Vols. Georgia comes calling on Oct. 6 and the Bulldogs are still stinging from that second half rally UT shoved down their pie holes last season. Follow that with a trip to beautiful Starkville, Miss., where the Bulldogs will be planning to set a trap, catching Tennessee between bitter rivals Georgia and Alabama.
Then it’s on to Tuscaloosa the next week. Nick Saban will not be quite as hospitable a host as the past two or three Tide head coaches have been.
After that trip, Fulmer’s coaching career nightmare — Steve Spurrier — will bring the improving Gamecocks into Neyland Stadium. After this four-game gauntlet, the November tilts vs. Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky will either be extremely important or just the home stretch to get it over with for this year.