KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's defensive line has held its own in its last two games against two more traditional rushing offenses.
That might be a surprise to some, but not to Volunteers' senior Malik Jackson.
"I feel like we're right where we want to be," said the straightforward defensive lineman. "[Defensive line] Coach [Lance Thompson] said we kind of played one of our better games last week. I know the score didn't look like it."
In its most daunting physical challenge to this season, UT limited LSU tailback Spencer Ware to 80 yards on 23 carries, his lowest yards per carry average as a full-time back this season. That performance came a week after the Vols limited Georgia freshman Isaiah Crowell to his lowest yards per carry average of the season.
"I think as a whole we're playing a lot better than how we did last year even though the results may not appear that [way]," said coach Derek Dooley. "I don't know if it does or doesn't. We've been playing to this point a lot better. Not as good as we need to but a lot better."
Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead and Florida's Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps gashed the Vols for nearly seven yards per rush out of more spread-style offenses earlier this season. With the 270-pound Jackson starting next to converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood at defensive tackle, the Vols' ability to stop power-run teams was of great concern entering the season. Maurice Couch, the 305-pound tackle, and bigger ends Ben Martin and Marlon Walls have helped UT's physicality up front.
Spread-style offenses that have hurt the Vols on the ground, though. When LSU brought in Jordan Jefferson at quarterback, the Tigers gashed the Vols, mostly on the perimeter.
"We played well in spurts," defensive line coach Lance Thompson said after Wednesday morning's practice. LSU's a very talented team, there's no question about that, but things they got, some of the time we helped them as a defense by not doing what we were supposed to do. If we just execute at a high level and be where we are supposed to be and do what we are supposed to do, some things would change in that game. I was proud of our effort, I was proud of our toughness, we went after them, we played hard but we didn't play smart all the time."
As powerful a runner as Ware has been this season, he's not Alabama's Trent Richardson. The Crimson Tide junior already has 912 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games this season, and he enters Saturday night's game with the Vols, who blared crowd noise during Wednesday morning's weather-induced indoor practice to prepare for their second road game of the season, with six consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
"Coach [Derek Dooley] said he's really good," Jackson said with a smile, "and we're going to stick with that.
We know we're undersized, but we just go out there and play like we're 400 pounds. I think that's a good thing. You've got to do it in this league, go out there and play big and that's what we do."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took responsibility for quarterback Matt Simms' first interception against LSU. One play after connecting on a long pass to Rajion Neal, the Vols took a shot downfield to Da'Rick Rogers, but Simms' underthrew the pass and LSU's Morris Claiborne picked it off, raced 88 yards to UT's 5 and provided an early momentum swing.
"My mistake," Chaney said. "It was a bad call, throwing it up there on their better corner. I should have went after a different guy. I'll eat that first one."
Chaney added that Simms, aside from some mistakes, had "some things go unnoticed" that were positive. He was also "very pleased" with how UT ran the ball, especially the physicality along the offensive line, which he called "a little silver lining."
The Rivera Riddle
The Vols need tight end Mychal Rivera both in pass protection and as a receiver, but the junior can do only one thing at a time. Against LSU, it was blocking. Rivera had no catches and just one target after a five-catch, 85-yard performance against Georgia the prior week.
"That's always difficult when you're trying to help in protections with the tight ends, but I've got to find ways to get him the ball," Chaney said. "I had a bunch of plays down, we just could never get to him, it didn't seem like."
That's how defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, a former collegiate and minor-league baseball player described the struggles for cornerback Marsalis Teague the past two games. Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell burned the junior for a 73-yard completion to set up a touchdown, and LSU's Rueben Randle turned a short pass into a 45-yard gain that swung momentum and set up a field goal just before halftime last week.
With Prentiss Waggner sliding to corner and freshman Brian Randolph entering the first-team lineup at safety this week, Teague is the odd man out, though he'll still play.
"He's had a tough couple of games, and playing defensive back - especially corner - you've got to have a short memory," Joseph said. "I think that's the one thing, at this point, that's really troubled him a little bit. He can't move on from one play to the next. You could kind of see his shoulders a little bit slumped [against] Georgia.
"The play against LSU was, I think, a play that he makes 75, 80 percent of the time that he didn't make, and it was a big play in the game. Obviously Marsalis has the ability. We've just got to get him to play to that level, and that's my job."