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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee's running game components, which include linemen Dayne Davis (66), Javontez Spraggins (76) and Jerome Carvin (75) and running back Tiyon Evans (8), will be challenged Saturday night by a Florida defense that held Alabama to 91 rushing yards.

In Tennessee's last two football games against Pittsburgh and Tennessee Tech, the Volunteers haven't connected on a deep throw and have received very little production from their running backs.

Think that might need to change Saturday night if the Vols are to compete at 11th-ranked Florida?

After Tennessee enjoyed its easiest test of the season with a 56-0 rout of the Golden Eagles, the Gators went up against No. 1 Alabama and played the Crimson Tide to a virtual standoff. Florida fell 31-29 despite outgaining the Tide 440-331, and a lot of that was due to the Gators holding Alabama to 28 carries for 91 yards, or just 3.3 yards per rush.

"They're big, long and athletic," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said Monday of the Gators after having studied Saturday's thriller in the Swamp. "They're violent. They strike the line of scrimmage and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Structurally, I thought their second and third levels fit extremely well, and they tackled extremely well for the most part throughout the course of the day.

"When you do those things, it makes it tough to run the football."

The Vols have made it tough on themselves the past two weeks when it comes to getting their ground game going outside of impressive runs by quarterbacks Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker. In Tennessee's 41-34 loss to Pitt on Sept. 11, Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright combined on 19 carries for 33 yards (1.7 per carry).

This past Saturday should have been much easier considering the opposition, but Vols running backs were far from dominant in combining on 34 rushes for 130 yards (3.8). Heupel said Saturday that the struggles are shared by the line and the backs, and he repeated that sentiment Monday.

Then there are the lack of downfield completions, with Tennessee last enjoying such a moment in the Bowling Green opener on Milton's 40-yard touchdown toss to Cedric Tillman with 5:11 remaining.

"We've made those plays 100 times in practice," sixth-year senior receiver Velus Jones Jr. said. "I really feel like we'll be clicking on all cylinders when we go to Gainesville. We just have to do what we do best, and I have all the confidence in the world in my brothers, especially each of our quarterbacks."

Said fifth-year senior receiver JaVonta Payton: "We have a whole lot of new players who came in, and it's just about chemistry and bonding. It takes time."

Time is hardly running out on the Vols three games into Heupel's inaugural year, but there is no debating that facing Florida in the Swamp will serve as the most accurate gauge yet in terms of Tennessee's quick-tempo offense as well as the overall shape of the program.

"This is a big game," Heupel said. "During the course of the summer, we showed highlights of these types of games, and a couple of them were Florida games. They were highly competitive games, and I think our kids understand and are excited about this game. The challenge for us is not doing something extraordinary but rather do the ordinary at a really high level.

"You guys have seen the opportunities that have presented themselves, particularly in the vertical pass game, that we have to start hitting. We're capable of it. I've seen us do it. It's time to go execute that on the field."

 

Negating the noise

One way the Vols are approaching this week is that the better the tempo, the quieter the Swamp.

"Tempo definitely helps with the crowd," senior center/guard Jerome Carvin said. "Hopefully we can get some big plays and really quiet the crowd down. I know their defense will look to the sideline to see where they're going to get lined up, so hopefully we can push the tempo fast enough where we can get those guys in fits adjustment-wise."

Tennessee is averaging 3.08 offensive plays per minute, which leads the nation.

 

Stopping the option

The Gators rushed for a robust 245 yards at Alabama's expense, with much of that damage coming on option plays.

"We all could have done a little better job of playing the option," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Monday. "We focused a lot on quarterback runs, and we focused some on the option. I think there were times in the game where we didn't play the option correctly."

Said Tide sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson: "You've got to play the quarterback if you've got the quarterback and play the option if you've got the pitch. It all goes back to doing your job and all 11 being on the same page."

 

No hypotheticals

Heupel was asked Monday if Milton would start in Gainesville provided he's healthy enough.

"I never speak in hypotheticals," Heupel responded. "He got a little bit of work last week, and we'll find out where he is Tuesday and Wednesday here and find out where he's at as far as whether he'll be able to play or not."

 

Odds and ends

The Vols trail the Florida series 30-20 after holding a 19-15 lead following their 2004 victory. ... Tennessee's game next week at Missouri will have a noon kickoff on the SEC Network. ... The Vols have 29 tackles for loss through three games, which ranks seventh nationally, and their 54.3 rushing yards allowed per game ranks fifth. ... Heupel on Florida coach Dan Mullen's continued success offensively with different styles: "He has a track record of good quarterback play, and that includes the ability to run the football, too. That's been a big part of what he's done everywhere he's been."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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