KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- One week after a promising start, the University of Tennessee's ground game reverted back to the inconsistent, sometimes sputtering aspect of the offense of a year ago.
In an area of concern among fans and a point of emphasis for coaches throughout the offseason, the Volunteers managed 184 yards on 43 runs against an overmatched Georgia State defense in Saturday's 51-13 win.
And while the numbers were respectable, the Vols certainly didn't gash the FCS-division Panthers, who gave up more than 200 yards to South Carolina State in their season opener. Only once in the first three quarters, with the starters in, did UT put together consecutive runs of 5 yards or more, and they were stopped short on third down and less than 3 yards three times.
Also, Marlin Lane lost a fumble on his third carry of the game.
"It's the same old deal. You know, sometimes we look good running the ball and sometimes we don't look good at all," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "We've got three guys so it's hard not to base it on who's producing. You can't put it on the ground, and Marlin knows that.
"Short yardage is an issue. It's shown up twice now in two games, so that's a concern. We're going to have to keep searching on what we do. Maybe we'll just have to spread it out and throw it."
UT's aerial attack continued to sizzle, with junior quarterback Tyler Bray completing 18 of 20 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns and junior receiver Justin Hunter looking completely healthy with eight catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns. That allowed UT to post consecutive 500-plus-yard offensive totals to start a season for the first time in program history.
But while the passing game is certainly the offensive steak, the trio of Rajion Neal, Lane and Devrin Young failed to establish themselves as anything more than a garnish on the plate. Each was handed the ball and the chance not only to claim the top spot but also to take another stride toward building confidence in the rushing attack heading into this week's showdown with Florida.
Instead, once again, none of them stood out.
But there were glimpses. Neal led the way with 65 yards on 13 carries and had the first two-TD game of his college career. He also avoided the ire of his coaches for trying to bounce runs outside on plays designed to go between the tackles.
On the game's opening possession, facing third-and-1, Neal took one step to the right as if he would try to bounce the run outside but quickly planted his foot and cut it back inside, lowering his head for a 2-yard gain and a new set of downs. He would cap that 13-play, 78-yard opening drive with a 1-yard scoring run and later add a 5-yard TD.
"Coach [Jay] Graham was in our ear before each of us would go out on the field, reminding us to run strong, keep it between the tackles," said Neal, whose second score came after he was stopped near the 2-yard line, spun off the initial hit and fought to reach the ball across the goal line.
"We had more plays called to run inside today, because that's what it will take against teams like Florida and in the rest of the SEC. We're focused on running downhill more, being physical and setting the tone that we can run the ball.
"I'm still confident that, with our offensive line, the big runs will come. Next week is the start of the real test for us. A lot of our games coming up will come down to how we do in short-yardage situations, goal-line and third-and-short, so we just have to keep working."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...