Sunday, September 02, 2007

Memphis Commercial Appeal: Vols hope to correct tackling problems

Tennessee surprised by speed Cal shows in win

By Ron Higgins

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It was easy to put a finger -- Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge's broken pinkie finger withstanding -- on why the No. 15 Vols lost a 45-31 season opening shootout at Cal on Saturday night.  "Our tackling was not acceptable," said tightlipped Vols' defensive coordinator John Chavis said.  "There were a number of occasions where we looked bad tackling those guys," said puzzled Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.  "We overran a lot of plays and didn't tackle well," said wistful Vols' linebacker Jerod Mayo.

Whether it was the No. 12 Bears trying to get revenge on the Vols for last year's loss in Knoxville or the fact Cal was playing at home on artificial turf that provided a fast track, Tennessee looked like it was tackling air.   "We knew they had great speed, but it surprised me how fast they were," Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl said. "They got a bunch of guys that look like they can run 4.3s (40-yard dashes). I don't know if we'll see a team this quick in the SEC all year."

Once Fulmer had a chance to look at Saturday's game film, he saw that the majority of the missed tackles came from his linebackers and his safeties, particularly senior Jonathan Hefney who supposedly is one of the better defensive backs in the SEC.  "Defensively, we had 22 missed tackles," Fulmer said. "Some of the missed tackles were due to the ability of Cal. They've got some skill at tailback and are very quick. Cal has some good backs, but they're not that good. A couple of times we weren't in support position to make the tackle and many times we were in position to make the play and didn't.  "Jon Hefney has made a lot of plays for us over the years. He's going to make a lot more, but he didn't have one of his better games."  There was also the 77-yard touchdown return by Cal's DeSean Jackson on the Vols' first punt of the day. Britton Colquitt didn't angle the ball out-of-bounds as ordered, but Fulmer felt the punt was good enough for Jackson to be hemmed in by the sideline and tacklers.  "We also missed a couple of tackles on the punt return and they got away with a couple of clips," Fulmer said. "But we had ample opportunities to make the tackle."   The Vols, who open their home season against Southern Mississippi on Saturday, better hope that's true. Or at least go back to the fundamentals of tackling this week in practice.  Even on a day when Tennessee's offense played fairly well -- with the exception of failing to convert a couple of crucial third down and short situations -- the Vols couldn't match Cal's pace. The Golden Bears outgained Tennessee, 471-382, dazzling them with a variety of weapons.

Quarterback Nate Longshore, awful in last year's loss in Knoxville when he was sacked four times and yanked from the game in the third quarter, threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He was rarely pressured, because Cal often kept seven and eight players in to protect him when the Vols were rushing just their front four or five.  Running back Justin Forsett ripped the Vols for 156 yards on 26 carries and scored once. Receiver Lavelle Hawkins, a transfer from LSU, caught seven passes for 90 yards and a TD. Along with Jackson's punt return, Cal scored its first touchdown on a fumble recovery after hammering Ainge on a blindside blitz.  "We gave away 14 points, we didn't convert some short yardage situations, yet we still had a chance to win once we got the score back to a 38-31," Fulmer said.  That happened when the Vols scored 10 straight points after trailing 38-21 early in the second half. The Vols' defense finally got a couple of stops and Ainge was able to surgically dissect Cal's defense with a barrage of short passes on scoring drives of 73 and 47 yards. The latter ended with Daniel Lincoln's 41-yard field goal in the first minute of the fourth quarter.

But Tennessee failed to move on its next possession. Cal then breezed through the poor tackling, lightweight pass-rushing Vols for game-clinching 70-yard TD drive.  The Bears made some nice defensive adjustments in the final quarter, playing more zone in the secondary and forcing Ainge to throw to his receivers underneath rather than him taking shots downfield.   "We were taking what they were giving us," said Ainge, who had a career-high 32 completions in 47 attempts for 271 yards and three touchdowns, despite playing with the broken little finger on his throwing hand that he hurt last week in practice. "The disappointing thing is not making plays on some of those third downs in the red zone."  Despite that, the Vols' offense received favorable reviews. Running back Arian Foster ran for 89 yards on 13 carries. The untested receiving corps was solid most of the day, with Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Austin Rogers catching six balls each, and tight end Chris Brown catching seven passes including two touchdowns.

"There were a couple of throws that came out terrible," Ainge said of throwing with his broken finger taped to another finger. "The receivers did a good job, especially for their first real game. Were they perfect? No, but none of us were perfect. The line gave me plenty of time to throw, keeping guys off me."  Ainge wasted no time after the game putting the loss in perspective.  "It's tough anytime you lose," he said, "and it will probably hurt us nationally. But in the SEC, if you win ballgames, it's amazing how fast you can climb back up (the polls). A SEC championship is what we ultimately want."  But for that to happen, the defense needs to improve in a hurry. Fulmer and Chavis said they would examine the possibility of personnel changes, possibly inserting freshman Eric Berry as a starting safety.  "Eric has worked at both cornerback and safety in practice, and he played very well (against Cal)," Fulmer said. "He's very bright.  Fulmer said defensive end Xavier Mitchell, who was taken from the field late in the game after trying to assist on a tackle and colliding with teammate Berry, is officially listed as having a concussion. Mitchell was taken to a Berkeley hospital, underwent a CAT scan that was negative and boarded the team plane.


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