KNOXVILLE -- Those minus-29 rushing yards seem like a distant memory for the Tennessee offense.
The numbers on the ground haven't been extraordinarily high for the Volunteers the past two weeks. Given the caliber of defense against whom the performances came, however, UT's 203 rushing yards over the last two weeks are a far cry from the previous two Southeastern-Conference games.
"We ran the ball really well in the first half," coach Derek Dooley said Saturday night after the Vols' 37-6 loss at No. 2 Alabama. "We had 61 yards, and you say, 'Well, gosh, that's not much.' It is against this team in a half. They were tough yards, jamming it in there."
Tailback Tauren Poole did most of that damage, running for 50 yards on 14 carries. The senior ran visibly much harder and showed little hesitation against the nation's top run defense, which was allowing just 38 yards per game.
"I feel like I had to," Poole said. "I just had to take what they gave me. I've got to continue to progress at doing that and move forward every single play."
Said right tackle Ja'Wuan James, "We were just going after them. He's been running hard, and we've been trying to do our best for him. We've got to do better and open up some more holes for him."
UT showed some variety in its backfield, rotating in Rajion Neal and freshmen Marlin Lane and Devrin Young at the tailback spots. The Vols continue to execute fake reverses and end arounds on handoffs up the middle, and Poole even lined up as a fullback on some carries.
"We just did a really good job preparing all week of preparing for the fronts and different looks we were going to get," said quarterback Matt Simms. "We executed well in the first half."
Poole also pointed out how the UT's run game, that's now 115th nationally at 89 yards per game, disappeared in the Vols' abysmal second half. UT had just 41 yards after halftime and did not pick up a first down. Lane also had a fumble.
"It is what it is, man," Poole said. "We've got be a second-half football team. That's the story of the season."
UT's ongoing issues in second halves of games were the main topic of discussion with Dooley and a the handful of players that made an appearance in the Bryant-Denny Stadium media room after the Crimson Tide outscored UT 31-0 after halftime.
"We learn from it, we move on," Dooley said. "We played two great football teams back to back, and we've gone toe-to-toe with them for 30 minutes. That doesn't mean that's good, but it means there's signs of some good things. We're really a fragile, fragile football team right now, and we've got to harden up a little bit."
Some of the Vols acknowledged it's difficult to do that against teams that are as deep and talented as Alabama and top-ranked LSU, which outscored UT 21-0 in the second half in Knoxville last week. Florida and Georgia outscored UT 28-6 combined in the third quarter earlier this season.
"These were two really good football teams that we played back to back that once they start rolling, they really put it on you," Simms said. "It's hard to slow them down. At times, maybe it is true, but it's tough to say [we're a fragile team.]"
Dooley said leading up to the Alabama game last week that he didn't believe the issues starting the third quarter were schematic or the result of the Vols coming out of the locker room with a lack of energy. Linebacker Austin Johnson attributed the problems to other teams simply executing better and the Vols not.
"We were ready to play, there was no question," Dooley said. "We had a good week of practice, we were upbeat and I wasn't worried about that. I was worried about when bad things start happening, how are we going to handle it. It's like the sky is falling and we get this look like, 'Oh my gosh.'
"We've got to fix it. You can't have everything go your way. This is the first game we really didn't play out of it."
Dooley added it's not unusual for young teams like the Vols to struggle with mental stamina for an entire game.
"We've got to learn to sustain, as an offense, offensive line and everybody," James said. "Mental stamina, just going out there and doing what we did in the first half. You can't get anxious, you can't let your mind get on all that."
Simms has completed just 14 of 37 passes with no touchdowns in his two starts since taking over for the injured Tyler Bray, and the senior has tossed three interceptions and had two others dropped. Down 31 points midway through the fourth quarter on Saturday, Dooley made the decision to put freshman Justin Worley in the game for his first collegiate action.
"I don't know yet," the coach said of stability of his quarterback situation after the game.
Worley, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in South Carolina who enrolled at UT in January, didn't throw a pass. On his coach's show Sunday, Dooley said the situation likely would resolve itself during practice this week and added Bray could return for "maybe" one of the the last two games of the regular season against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson probably wishes every team UT played ran a similar offense to LSU and Alabama. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound freshman has made 24 tackles the past two weeks. He's now second on the team behind Austin Johnson.
"Stature game," Dooley said. "He shows up in those hard, physical games. We've got to get more A.J. Johnsons."
Dooley said on his coach's show Sunday that Justin Coleman "needs to get on the field more" after the freshman cornerback had two pass breakups on Saturday ... Dooley said after the game the decision to use either Michael Palardy or Matt Darr on punts is "a feel," though Palardy said the plan was for him to punt the first half and Darr, who Dooley said is "fine," to take the second half ... UT's 7:15 p.m. game on Saturday against 14th-ranked South Carolina in Knoxville will be televised by ESPN2.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...