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Tennessee vs. UCLA - Game Preview

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It is a game of tremendous importance for both teams.  In Year Two of Rick Neuheisel's administration, it's a chance for the Bruins to continue to put 2008 behind them and make a huge statement on the road.  In Year One of Lane Kiffin's tenure, it's a chance for the Vols to validate their dominant performance from a week ago, and put a truly definitive distinction between this year and last in the minds of players and fans alike.  The team that wins will go into conference play thinking big.  The team that loses will brace itself for another potentially frustrating year.

The keys to the game as the Vols and Bruins meet for the 15th time:

Jonathan Crompton & Kevin Prince:  Continued Maturation

Prince, a redshirt freshman who hadn't seen real game action in two years due to an injury in high school, had his moments in the opener against San Diego State:  18 of 29 for 176 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.  It was enough in a 33-14 win over the Aztecs, and under Norm Chow's watchful eye Prince should only get better.  UCLA fans hope he reminds the Vols of Kevin Craft in the second half last season, not the first.

Jon Crompton we'd seen before, but not like this:  21 of 28 for 233 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions on batted balls.  He earned his job back in the spring, worked hard to keep it this fall, and made the most of his fresh start.  Now every orange eye will be upon him once more:  a good performance against Western Kentucky offered hope.  A good performance against UCLA offers something much more tangible.  If Crompton plays well again, this time against a much better defense, most of us will breathe a tremendous sigh of relief, and be on board with #8 the rest of the way.  But if the old Crompton shows up (or was merely hiding behind WKU's defense last week), the flashbacks come with him, and it will be unpleasant.

Neither will be asked to win the game on their own, but both will be asked not to lose it.  Prince is a redshirt freshman looking to earn trust and make progress.  Crompton is a redshirt senior looking to bury the past and keep moving forward.  Both face a significant defensive upgrade this week.  Who will come through? 

Tennessee Rushing Offense:  Lessons Learned

The greatest source of frustration for Tennessee fans in last year's game was the Vols' ability to run the ball at will on the Bruins, and Dave Clawson's inability to recognize it.  Arian Foster had 13 carries for 96 yards, and Montario Hardesty ran 12 times for 66 yards.  Between the two of them, that's 162 yards at 6.48 yards per carry.  Ignoring this, Clawson allowed Jon Crompton to throw 41 times, and the Vols fell in overtime.

This year, the Vols got off to a great start with their best rushing performance in 15 years against Western Kentucky:

  • Montario Hardesty:  18 carries, 160 yards, 1 TD, 8.9 YPC
  • Bryce Brown:  11 carries, 104 yards, 1 TD, 9.5 YPC
  • Tauren Poole:  5 carries, 62 yards, 12.4 YPC
  • David Oku:  8 carries, 42 yards, 2 TDs, 5.3 YPC

The Vols ran for 380 yards at 8.6 yards per carry as a team, and it didn't really matter which back was in the game.

However, UCLA's run defense was also impressive last week, limiting San Diego State to only 39 yards on 18 carries (2.2 per).  While the opponents both teams faced last week leave lots of uncertainties, one fact remains:  San Diego State had no offensive linemen that weighed over 300 lbs.  The Vols will start four.  Bruins Nation discussed how UCLA might handle this earlier this week.

Tennessee isn't going to find the same level of success running the football against UCLA as they did against Western Kentucky.  But if they can duplicate or even approach the type of success they found last year against the Bruins, life will be much, much easier for Crompton and the entire team.

Tennessee Secondary:  First Real Test

Last week, WKU's quarterbacks combined to go 9 of 16 for only 49 yards, and rarely had time to do anything.  As a result, Tennessee's untested secondary - you know, the guys not named Eric Berry - is still largely that.

While experienced players do return (Brent Vinson had a pick last week), the starting group of Art Evans and Marsalous Johnson at corner, plus Dennis Rogan in his transition to free safety (plus freshman Janzen Jackson in the nickel package)...it's still a relatively green bunch.

Meanwhile, the only places UCLA isn't relatively green on offense are at wide receiver and tight end.  Taylor Embree and Terrence Austin each had six catches last week, and UCLA has one of the best overall tight end groups in the country, with Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya (7 catches in last year's game) sure to be involved.

Evans will have to get the job done on 6'3" Taylor Embree, so look for 5'9" Marsalous Johnson near the shorter Austin.  But if either of these guys get exposed it'll make life much easier on UCLA's young quarterback, and raise serious questions about exactly how good Tennessee's defense really is.

Environment & Adversity:  Which team is tougher?

The Vols faced only mild adversity last week when they turned the ball over on their first two drives.  Responding with 63 points in three quarters was nice, but make no mistake:  it will take beating a team like UCLA, a team that beat them last year, for the Vols to fully separate themselves from the ghosts of 2008.  If the Bruins get the early breaks and jump to a 14-0 lead, how will this team respond?  How will Lane Kiffin respond?

UCLA showed their composure last week when SDSU jumped to a 14-3 first quarter lead, and then the Bruins scored 30 points in a row.  The unfamiliarity for UCLA isn't in falling behind, but where the game is played:  Neyland Stadium's sea of orange swallowed up the last Pac-10 team it saw, as the Vols jumped to a 35-0 lead on #9 Cal in the 2006 season opener.  The Bruins are playing with a redshirt freshman quarterback, lots of youth in the backfield and three new starters on the offensive line.  Will they be affected by the environment?

This is where Tennessee fans need to make a difference.  Last week was a welcome win and a sigh of relief, and we all enjoyed it.  This week we need to turn the dial back to eleven where it belongs, and be the dominant home field advantage we're more than capable of being.  This is a Tennessee team whose season could go very different ways depending on the outcome of this game.  We need to do our part to make sure it swings in our favor.  If UCLA comes out for their first offensive series and thinks "Hey, this isn't so bad...", we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Lane Kiffin vs. Norm Chow:  Pushing the right buttons

We've already covered this matchup at length, but when neither team has the sort of playmakers on offense where you can just get them the ball and get out of the way (not that I wouldn't love Hardesty or Bryce Brown to prove me wrong), playcalling becomes even more critical.  Chow will be going against Monte Kiffin in a legendary coordinator battle.  And Chow got the best of Tennessee's last coordinator, methodically going to the tight end and working the middle of the field as he watched Kevin Craft come back from the dead to steal an overtime win.

Kiffin has more to prove as a playcaller and as a coach in general.  If the Vols are down four with two minutes left, what's he going to dial up for Crompton?  Can he keep the offense in the same beautiful balance it enjoyed last week, or will UCLA be allowed to stack the box and force Crompton to win it?  Regardless of the respect and the generally decent tone both sides have employed thus far this week, I'd be willing to wager a fair amount that both of these guys want this win - and want a great offensive performance - very, very badly.

This is the Gateway Game.  Win, and the kind of season you've been dreaming about all summer long is still on the table with tangible evidence to back it up.  Lose, and the kind of season you just struggled through comes back on the table, and you start thinking about bowl eligibility instead of the Top 25.  Tennessee couldn't bury 2008 with even the very best of performances against Western Kentucky, though that's what we got with the largest difference in total yards per team in Tennessee Football history.

But beating UCLA - no matter what the Vols do next week - can give tangible proof that last year was last year, and this team is truly something different...and something better.