UT Vols' Thigpen says Oregon now better than 2010

photo Tommy Thigpen

KNOXVILLE - When it comes to holding Oregon's high-powered offense under 30 points, Tommy Thigpen is part of a fairly exclusive club.

Now Tennessee's linebackers coach, Thigpen coached Auburn's safeties when Tigers edged the Ducks 22-19 in the BCS national championship game three years ago.

Since 2007, Oregon, which hosts the Volunteers on Saturday, has been held under 30 points only nine times, and LSU, in the 2011 season opener at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Stanford last November are the only defenses to pull the trick the past two seasons.

"In my opinion, they're a better football team," Thigpen said after Tennessee practiced on Wednesday afternoon. "They've got a faster quarterback. At that time, their quarterback was a really good player, but the kid they got now is Heisman-caliber, and their team speed is tremendous."

Darron Thomas was Oregon's quarterback in 2010, when the Ducks won 48-13 in Knoxville and narrowly lost to the Cam Newton-led Tigers, and now it's Marcus Mariota, the lanky 6-foot-4, 211-pounder from Hawaii, orchestrating Oregon's attack.

"They're going to make plays," Thigpen said. "It's like playing Michael Jordan -- he's going to make plays. We've just got to make plays as well. They do so many things, and so many guys can score on simple plays.

"Anywhere in the country, a swing pass would be anywhere from a 5- or 10-yard gain. A swing pass in their system can be an 80-yard touchdown. They've got players that can make big plays."

Southern Cal (2008), Boise State (2009), UCLA (2009) and California (2008 and 2010) have kept Oregon under the 30-point mark, and Ohio State held the Ducks to 17 in the 2009 Rose Bowl.

Stanford, though, was the only team to do it in Eugene. The Cardinal built a blueprint with they held Oregon to 405 yards and a 4-of-17 third-down conversion rate in a game that knocked Oregon out of the national title game. Thigpen said the Vols have watched tape from that game.

"We've looked at everybody, and so many teams play them in so many different ways," he said. "It's got to be one of the best-adjusting teams in college football. You watch them on the field, and they're making adjustments as the game goes.

"They play with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, and to me they're playing some of the best football in the country."

Howard hurt

Tennessee receiver Pig Howard neither dressed nor practiced on Wednesday. The sophomore did some light work on the side, but he moved around very gingerly. During some light jogging, Howard showed a significant limp, though he wore no noticeable boot or brace.

Receivers coach Zach Azzanni provided little additional information regarding the nature or severity of Howard's injury.

If Howard, who's caught four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown and run twice for 27 yards in the season's first two games, can't play at Oregon, the Vols will be down two slot receivers. Devrin Young (broken hand) is also out. Junior college transfer Johnathon Johnson, followed by Vincent Dallas, would have to step in and fill the void.

More on Mariota

As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Mariota completed 68.5 percent of his passes, threw for 2,677 yards, ran for 752 more and accounted for 37 touchdowns, and through two games this year, he's averaging an eye-opening 26 yards per run.

On Oregon's first possession at Virginia last week, he took off on a third-down draw play and outran everybody on a 77-yard touchdown run.

"You have to mix it up on him," Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "He's very athletic, he's got tremendous speed [and] a great burst. When you see him on film, he just outruns angle, so you have to have a plan, that's for sure."

Most of that, Jancek said, will depend on Tennessee's defensive line, not the secondary.

"They can't worry about that. They have to stay in coverage, and that has to be handled by the front seven and making sure that we keep him in the pocket," Jancek said. "It's amazing when you see him decide to take off, the acceleration that he has and the speed with which he just pulls away from people.

"It's remarkable, man, and it's impressive to watch, so we've got to keep him in the pocket and keep him contained."

Extra points

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones wore a navy blue NYPD hat on the 12-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. ... An ESPN camera crew followed Jones, who was miked up, around during practice for a feature scheduled to run during Saturday morning's "College GameDay" program. ... The Vols briefly practiced defending Oregon's swinging-gate formation, from which the Ducks tend to run a two-point play or shift back into a traditional field goal setup on point-after attempts. ... Second-team center Mack Crowder worked as a second tight end during Tennessee's walk-through period. The redshirt sophomore came in at left guard and Alex Bullard lined up as a second tight end during a couple of possessions against Western Kentucky last week. ... Backup tight end Joseph Ayres watched practice on crutches with a bag of ice on his right knee, and reserve linebacker and special teamer Raiques Crump again missed practice.