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Tennessee's Ground Game is Back Up in the Air

Marlin Lane worked himself into the mix for starting running back with his performance against NC State.
Marlin Lane worked himself into the mix for starting running back with his performance against NC State.

Tennessee's rushing game hasn't been all that good since 2004. That's a strange thing to say about a team that was once known for a punishing ground game, but it's true. That's the last year that the Vols finished in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, and it's been in the bottom four of the conference ever since.

In 2012, it took only one game to shake up the depth chart at running back. Rajion Neal had been the starter, but he's now listed as co-starter along with Friday's leading rusher Marlin Lane and Devrin Young. I'm not sure why Young is listed up there after having only two carries, but it's not hard to see why Lane got the promotion when you look at how the backs did against NC State:

Player Carries Yards YPC Longest
Rajion Neal 22 53 2.41 8
Marlin Lane 9 75 8.33 42
Devrin Young 2 -2 -1.00 0
Total 33 126 3.82 -

Lane's line immediately pops off the page there in comparison to Neal's. He comes back down to earth a bit, though, if you look at what he did without his big 42 yard gainer. He drops to 33 yards on eight carries for an average of 4.13 per rush. That's still better than what Neal did, but it's not a tremendous performance in absolute terms.

Speaking of big plays, Neal wasn't the only player to have one on the ground. Breakout WR Cordarrelle Patterson had a 67 yard touchdown rush on an end around. Those two plays greatly boosted the rushing stats for the Volunteers on the night. To wit:

UT Rushing Carries Yards YPC
With Big Plays 36 195 5.42
No Big Plays 34 86 2.53

These figures don't include sacks or kneel downs.

When you factor out those two long runs, the yards per carry average sinks precipitously. In fact it looks almost identical to the 2.47 yards per carry the team had against BCS AQ competition a year ago, a figure that put the team last in the SEC. On a down-to-down basis, Tennessee just didn't run the ball all that well. Rinse, repeat.

With that said, the two big plays on the ground shouldn't just be set aside and forgotten. UT managed only one rush of at least 40 yards in all of 2011; last Friday, they had two in one game. That count of two is also half of the four they had in all of 2010. That, I think, counts as progress.

Everyone knows that Tennessee's offense is based on Tyler Bray throwing to a dangerous set of receivers and tight ends. The rushing game only has to keep the defense honest to free up the passing game. Through one contest against a decent ACC squad, it doesn't look like that run attack is going to be able to do that reliably. However, it's possible that the big play threat will give defenses pause even if the per rush average is under three for most carries. If so, then it's mission accomplished anyway.