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VOL. 7 | NO. 40 | Saturday, September 27, 2014

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Dave Link

Vols Hope to Snap 20-Game Road Slump vs. Ranked Opponents

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – It doesn’t get much easier for the University of Tennessee’s football team.

The Sept. 20 open date has come and gone. UT’s coaches and players had ample time to digest and dissect details of the 34-10 loss to No. 4-ranked Oklahoma on Sept. 13 and a week to prepare for a challenge just as formidable.

UT (2-1) plays its SEC opener Saturday at noon against No. 12-ranked Georgia (2-1) in Athens, Ga.

The Vols have lost four straight to Georgia and haven’t won in Athens since 2006. Their 51-33 victory at No. 10 Georgia in ’06 also was the Vols’ last road win against a ranked opponent. Since then, UT has lost 20 straight road games against ranked teams.

And Georgia is never a pushover when it gets opponents “between the hedges” of Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs opened as a 19-point favorite.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for this football team going on the road in a hostile environment, a noon game versus a great, great opponent,” UT coach Butch Jones says.

Georgia running back Todd Gurley

(AP Photo/Paul Abell)

“But as we all know, that’s life in the SEC.”

Jones got his first taste of the series last year when the Bulldogs pulled out a 34-31 overtime win at Neyland Stadium. It was the third straight game in the series decided by eight points or less (Georgia won 20-12 in 2011 and 51-44 in ’12).

In last year’s game, the Vols rallied from a 17-3 deficit in the first half before a sellout crowd. They tied it at 17-all after three quarters, and had a 31-24 lead on Rajion Neal’s 7-yard touchdown run late in the game. Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led a last-minute touchdown drive, and Marshall Morgan’s 42-yard field goal won it in overtime.

Jones said what happened in 2013 won’t affect his team.

“It’s a new season. It’s a new football team,” Jones says. “Half of our football team didn’t even participate in that game. Probably a third of the newcomers were actually at that game on a recruiting visit. But again, they didn’t perform in it.

“I think it adds confidence for everyone, but just like Georgia, they’re a new football team, and now, you’re not playing in Neyland Stadium.

“You’re playing in Sanford Stadium. You have to go on the road, just like we did at Oklahoma. You have to be able to block out the clutter, the distractions, the crowd noise, so I think it’s a whole different dynamic just because the team is half new. They didn’t go through it last year.”

Georgia, coming off a 66-0 victory over Troy last Saturday in Athens, is 0-1 in the SEC after losing at then-No. 24 South Carolina 38-35 on Sept. 13. The Bulldogs opened the season with a 45-21 victory over then-No. 16 Clemson on Aug. 30 in Athens.

Their forte this year is reminiscent of yesteryear. The Bulldogs boast one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks, and is led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in junior tailback Todd Gurley.

Gurley, an All-SEC second team player a year ago, didn’t play against UT in 2013, one of three games he missed with an ankle injury. Without him, Murray carried the rushing load against the Vols – 17 attempts for 129 yards – and threw for 196 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think there’s no secret when you think of the University of Georgia, you think of their stable of running backs, and it is a stable,” Jones says. “They’re very, very talented, very physical. Gurley, (Sony) Michel, (Nick) Chubb, (Keith) Marshall, they all bring a different element to their backfield.”

UT’s run defense has been solid this year, allowing 129 rushing yards per game. Oklahoma ran for 146 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry two weeks ago.

Georgia will display another level of the run game.

“It has been a strength of ours,” Jones says of the rush defense, “but now we’ll really find out heading into the Georgia game.

“Obviously, with their stable of backs and their mentality that they want to play football, their style of play, and they also do a great job in terms of their personnel groupings with their big packages and their different personnel.

“It will be a great challenge for us moving forward. Our safeties will have to do a great job. But again, this is a game that challenges your overall discipline because they do a very good job in terms of their play-action pass game. And again, it gets back to the ‘I’ discipline, just doing your job and following the fundamentals and following the job descriptions of every call.”

Key Matchups

UT’s O-line vs. Georgia’s 3-4 front: Another huge test looms for the Vols’ offensive line, which gave up five sacks at Oklahoma (and two other sacks were nullified due to penalties). The Sooners had eight more quarterback hurries and put hits on UT quarterback Justin Worley 16 times. UT’s right side of the line, freshman guard Jashon Robertson and freshman tackle Coleman Thomas, were most susceptible to the Sooners’ rush.

Georgia’s pressure on Worley will be just as great. The Bulldogs have eight sacks this season – two against Troy, one against South Carolina, and five against Clemson. Senior inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera leads the Bulldogs with three sacks for minus-28 yards, and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd has two for minus 16 yards.

Herrera (6-2, 244) leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 24, and senior middle linebacker Ramik Wilson (6-2, 232) is second with 34.

“There’s a reason why some people picked them to win the SEC East this year, and when you look at them defensively, it all starts with Wilson, the linebacker,” Jones says.

“He’s extremely active and will be one of the best linebackers we face all year. They have an inordinate amount of depth on their defensive front and even on their entire defense.”

Bulldogs’ Rush vs. UT’s front 7: Georgia boasts the nation’s second-best rushing offense, averaging 304 yards per game and 7.7 yards per rushing attempt. The Bulldogs had 367 rushing yards against Troy, and rushed for 217 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against South Carolina. They gained 328 rushing yards and averaged 8.0 yards a try against Clemson.

Gurley is the marquee back, but Marshall gave the Bulldogs a tough one-two punch in 2013 before suffering a torn ACL against UT on Oct. 5. Marshall, who rushed for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2012, got hurt again last Saturday in the fourth quarter against Troy.

Gurley set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards in the opener against Clemson, including his second career 100-yard kickoff return. He’s rushed for 402 yards on 41 carries (9.8-yard average) and was pulled early in the Troy game after rushing for 73 yards on six carries.

Georgia’s No. 2 rusher is the 5-11, 208-pound true freshman Michel, chosen to USA Today’s first-team All-USA team as a senior last year in Plantation, Fla. Michel has 206 rushing yards this season after gaining 155 on 10 carries against Troy and scoring three touchdowns.

“When you look at their stable of running backs, the first thing that sticks out at you are the yards after contact,” Jones said. “It’s really incredible, so obviously, make no mistake about it, we have to be a great tackling football team.’’

UT Special Teams vs. Georgia Special Teams: The Vols’ special teams have been average at best, particularly the punt and kickoff return teams. Not so for the Bulldogs.

UT has only been able to return two punts all year (Cameron Sutton has one return for 3 yards, Jacob Carter one for 21 yards) for a 12-yard average. Georgia has returned 11 punts for a 15-yard average; Reggie Davis has eight returns for 88 yards (11.0 average), and Isaiah McKenzie three for 77 yards (25.7 average). McKenzie, a freshman, returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown against Troy.

UT is averaging 20.4 yards on seven kickoff returns. Georgia has only returned four kickoffs all season and is averaging 32.8 yards per return – an average bolstered by Gurley’s 100-yarder for touchdown against Clemson.

Georgia punter Collin Barber is averaging 42.1 yards on 10 punts with one touchback, one fair catch, and five punts downed inside the 20. UT’s Matt Darr is averaging 37.2 yards on 22 punts with no touchbacks, 11 fair catches, and eight downed inside the 20.

Bulldogs place-kicker Marshall Morgan set an SEC record by making his 19th consecutive field goal against Clemson – his streak dates back to 2013 and broke the record of 18 straight held by UT’s Fuad Reveiz (1984).

Morgan made another against Clemson for his 20th in a row, but missed a 44-yarder in the second quarter and missed a 28-yarder in the fourth with Georgia trailing by three.

UT’s Aaron Medley has made 4 of 6 field-goal attempts this year. His longest is a 38-yarder.

Notable Notes

Ailing Receivers: Junior wide receiver Von Pearson will miss his second consecutive game with a high ankle sprain sustained against Arkansas State on Sept. 6. Pearson, a starter for two games, didn’t play at Oklahoma. He has seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.

Sophomore receiver Josh Smith is questionable for Georgia with an ankle injury sustained at Oklahoma. Smith is third on the team in catches (10) and second in receiving yards (135) and has a touchdown catch.

Freshman Josh Malone will move up the depth chart with Pearson out and Smith questionable.

“His role will continue to expand, and very rightfully so,” Jones says of Malone. “He’s worked exceptionally hard. He’s starting to understand the small details of what it takes to play championship football at the receiver position, the work ethic, the practice habits. … Josh Smith and Von Pearson are very, very good football players, but it’s all about working to create depth through recruiting, and it’s just another opportunity for another individual.”

Mason Connection: Jones won’t need an introduction to Georgia senior quarterback Hutson Mason, who has taken over for the departed Murray.

When Jones was head coach at Cincinnati, he recruited Mason, who played at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga.

“I’m very familiar with him,” Jones says. “We went through the recruiting process with him when we were at Cincinnati, and he’s managing the game exceptionally well and playing winning football for them.”

Mason, 6-3, 209 pounds, has completed 42 of 59 passes (71.2 percent) for 419 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Early Impacts: Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett has been the defensive impact player of the 2014 class of recruits, while freshman running back Jalen Hurd holds that distinction on the offensive side.

Barnett, who came to UT from Brentwood Academy, has 11 tackles, two for losses, and two quarterback hurries. He had five tackles (two solo, three assists) and a tackle for loss against Oklahoma and played almost every defensive down.

Hurd, of Hendersonville’s Beech High School, has been the backup tailback behind Marlin Lane, but leads the Vols in rushing with 209 yards on the team-high 48 carries (4.4-yard average).

Lane, a senior, has started all three games and has 137 rushing yards on 34 carries (4.0-yard average).

Paulk Gone: Freshman running back Treyvon Paulk was dismissed from the team after an alleged domestic assault incident last Saturday night.

Paulk, of Milton High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, had not played in a game this season and was expected to redshirt while still recovering from a knee injury sustained during his senior season at Milton.

Richt Ties: Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek and assistant head coach/defensive backs coach Willie Martinez both coached at Georgia under Richt.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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