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November 2, 2006

Game of the Week: No. 13 LSU at No. 8 Tennessee

"if I'm LSU and Crompton is playing....I zone blitz and try to bait him into throwing into coverage thinking that he might get rattled. But with all that said, we have to be able to get our D off the field and keep them from gashing us with the run."
-- jimdar on the The General's Quarters message board on VolQuest.com.

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Playing with pain is expected in November, and Saturday's college football game at Neyland Stadium will meet those expectations.

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge has a sprained ankle, LSU has hurt feelings, both teams' running games are crippled and the No. 8 Volunteers (7-1, 3-1) and No. 13 Tigers (6-2, 2-2) want to avoid having their postseason aspirations bruised.

Tennessee, a one-point loser to Florida on Sept. 16, still has hopes of overtaking the Gators and winning the SEC East. Of course, that likely would require the Volunteers winning their remaining four games and Florida stumbling in one of its remaining two SEC games.

Meanwhile, LSU is in third place in the SEC West standings behind Arkansas and Auburn. The Tigers are clinging to the improbable hope that somehow they can rally and win the division. At the very least, the Tigers still hope to earn a spot in a BCS bowl game.

"This is not just another Saturday," LSU coach Les Miles acknowledged. "With a victory at Tennessee we have a place to stand in this conference. It's a chance to establish who we are in the West and play ourselves into contention."

Cynics would say the Tigers are pretending rather than contending. After all, passing one team at this juncture in the race is difficult. Passing two is unlikely.

However, Miles remains optimistic, or maybe just obstinate.

"Auburn had a scare last week," he said in reference to Auburn's 23-17 victory over Ole Miss. "Arkansas may have a loss when we play them (on Nov. 24). The key is for us to play ourselves into contention. We have to win against quality opponents, and Tennessee is our first opportunity."

The Tigers also have the opportunity to avenge last season's collapse in Baton Rouge. LSU blew a 21-point lead and fell to the Volunteers 30-27 in overtime. Adding insult to injury, some Tennessee players had the audacity to bust a celebratory move on the Death Valley playing field, and even planted a Tennessee flag in the eye of the Tiger logo.

"It's on my mind," LSU running back Jacob Hester said. "The way they celebrated on our field, the way they acted after they won."

Hester should be more forgiving because the Volunteers didn't have many chances for dances during last season's 5-6 disaster, their only losing record in 17 years.

That futility was matched only by the struggles of quarterback Erik Ainge, who suffered through a campaign as fruitless as John Kerry's. Ainge completed just 66 of 145 passes for a mere 737 yards with more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five).

But like the Volunteers, Ainge bounced back strong and has stepped up his performance by throwing for 2,213 yards and 16 touchdowns thus far.

However, any further steps will be hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered in last week's victory over South Carolina. Ainge has missed practices this week, but has thrown on the side. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jonathan Crompton has been working with the first team offense.

His status remains uncertain, but earlier this week Ainge vowed he would play.

"You really don't have a choice," he said. "This is LSU. Every game you play is the biggest game. This is the biggest game of the season. We don't have a choice but to get healthy and be out there."

Staying healthy might be difficult. Tennessee's offensive line has protected Ainge very well, but a limping quarterback could be a sitting duck for LSU - which leads the SEC with 26 sacks.

"Everyone knows with an ankle injury it makes it a little harder to move," Tennessee center Josh McNeil said. "It is going to be of the utmost importance to keep them off of him and give him time to throw the ball. By far, this is the best defensive front we've seen."

Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer agreed, but still puts the onus on his offensive line.

"We need to control the line of scrimmage," he said. "We are protecting the passer, but need to improve our run blocking. That will be a focus."

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Tennessee has had very little success running. LaMarcus Coker, the Vols' leading rusher with 393 yards, is out with a knee injury and the Vols have managed just 243 rushing yards in their last three games combined and those were victories. In their loss to Florida they were held to minus 11 yards rushing.

However, they've compensated with Ainge making big plays in the passing game, particularly to Robert Meachem. The junior receiver is averaging 19.3 yards on 45 catches and has scored six touchdowns.

LSU is in an almost identical situation. Injuries in the backfield and offensive line have rendered the Tigers' running game ineffective. LSU averages a respectful 158.1 rushing yards per game, but those numbers have been skewed by lopsided totals against overmatched opponents like Arizona (231 yards rushing), Kentucky (268 yards) and Fresno State (184 yards). LSU was held under 100 yards rushing in its two losses.

But the Tigers have made up it for their rushing issues by looking to quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who has thrown for 1,910 yards and 15 touchdowns. Russell has also been efficient, completing 69.9 percent of his passes.

Yet, Miles - sounding much like Fulmer - insists LSU must have some measure of success on the ground.

"I'd like to have us run the football more effectively early in the game," he said. "There's no question about it. We've got to establish the run."

If both coaches insist on running the ball, they may get painful reminders of just how inept their running games have been.

But why shouldn't the reminders be painful? Everything else seems to be in November.

Week 10 Game of the Week: No. 13 LSU at No. 8 Tennessee
LSU run offense vs. Tennessee run defense: Figuring out LSU's running game isn't easy. The Tigers posted a solid 184 yards rushing in a victory over Fresno State two weeks ago, but was that because the Tigers were better or the competition was worse? LSU rushed for 108 yards or fewer against Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida, teams with good run defenses. The LSU offensive line is not overpowering, and the running backs seem to always be hurt. Alley Broussard did have 67 yards rushing on five carries against Fresno, so that's encouraging. The Tigers' leading rusher is Charles Scott with just 277 yards, so that is not. Tennessee's run defense, which ranks 51st in the nation, is equally enigmatic. Opponents average 3.6 yards per rushing attempt and only Florida's DeShawn Wynn has managed 100 yards rushing against the Volunteers. But in Tennessee's last three games Georgia rushed for 145, South Carolina rushed for 165 and Alabama rushed for just 53. Linebacker Jerod Mayo leads the team with 10 tackles for losses. Edge: Tennessee
LSU pass offense vs. Tennessee pass defense: The passing game for LSU (6-2) is a prime example of feast or famine. In the Tigers' six victories in which they've scored at least 38 points per game quarterback JaMarcus Russell has thrown 14 touchdown passes and one interception. In the two losses he's thrown one touchdown pass and three interceptions. Overall, Russell ranks fourth in the nation in pass efficiency. Dwayne Bowe, who has 37 catches and seven touchdowns, is the best of a good group of big and talented receivers. Tennessee cornerback Jonathan Wade is having an All-America caliber season with three interceptions and 13 passes defended. Mayo has a team-leading five sacks. Tennessee doesn't mount much of a pass rush without blitzing. Still, the Vols have managed 11 interceptions while allowing eight touchdown passes. Edge: LSU
Tennessee run offense vs. LSU run defense: In half of their games this season the Volunteers have failed to rush for 100 yards as a team. Leading rusher LaMarcus Coker is sidelined with a knee injury. Arian Foster, who began the season as the starting tailback, is back in the lineup but has just 125 yards in the last three games combined. The going only figures to get tougher against LSU, which allows an average of 2.4 yards per carry. The Tigers have not allowed more than 113 rushing yards in a game this season. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is the best player in the nation at his position, and linebackers Darry Beckwith and Ali Highsmith are having solid years. Edge: LSU
Tennessee pass offense vs. LSU pass defense: Erik Ainge has finally emerged this season, and a case could be built for him to be among the Heisman Trophy finalists. He has thrown for 2,213 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing 67.8 percent of his attempts. He has thrown eight interceptions. Ainge threw two picks in a loss to Florida and three in a three-point victory over Alabama, so that's a point of concern. There are no concerns, however, about receiver Robert Meachem. The junior has four 100-yard games this season. The Volunteers have allowed just six sacks thus far. LSU has allowed just three touchdown passes all year. Safety LaRon Landry is an All-American caliber player, and cornerbacks Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson aren't far behind. Safety Craig Steltz has four interceptions. The Tigers have posted an SEC-leading 26 sacks, with ends Tyson Jackson and Chase Pittman leading the way. Edge: LSU
LSU kicking game vs. Tennessee kicking game: Tennessee's James Wilhoit has converted 11 of 13 field goals and punter Britton Colquitt averages 46.4 yards per kick. Also, Jonathan Hefney leads the SEC with a 17.9-yard punt return average. LSU's Colt David is 4-for-6 on field goals and Chris Jackson averages 41.5 per attempt. The Tigers' return yardage hasn't approached what they've had in recent years. Edge: Tennessee
LSU coaches vs. Tennessee coaches: Les Miles has posted 17 wins in 21 games at LSU, which is the second best start in school history. Defensive coordinator Bo Pelini annually fields one of the nation's premier units, and this year is no different. LSU leads the nation in total defense. Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer is 89-25 with just one losing season last year and he still posted a victory over LSU. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has done a masterful job mentoring quarterback Erik Ainge. Edge: Tennessee
X-Factor: Ainge has thrived in the fourth quarter of late, completing 73.3 percent of his passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns in the last three games. In that span, Tennessee has scored on eight of 12 possessions. On three of those possessions, the Volunteers were just trying to kill the clock. If Ainge is healthy enough to play, the Vols have a much better chance of winning.
LSU will win if: The Tigers must either have some semblance of rushing success to force Tennessee's defense to at least acknowledge the running game, or commit to a wide-open passing attack. In losses to Auburn and Florida, LSU rushed 48 times for just 132 yards (2.75 yards per attempt). Those run defenses are better than Tennessee's, so LSU may try its luck on the ground again. But if they stall early, the Tigers shouldn't stubbornly insist on running. They should give Russell more opportunities to make big plays with his excellent group of receivers. Avoiding five turnovers the amount LSU lost against Florida won't hurt, either.
Tennessee will win if: The Volunteers can protect the quarterback either Ainge or Crompton. Receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith all have at least 28 catches and have combined for 15 touchdowns. However, the UT quarterbacks must have time to find them against one of the nation's best secondaries. Tennessee's offensive line has done a remarkable job protecting Ainge this season, having allowed only six sacks. But LSU's pass rush is the best in the SEC and has generated 26 sacks thus far.
Notes: LSU has won its last 11 games played in November. The Tigers haven't lost in the month since falling 21-20 to Arkansas in 2002. Dating back to the 2000 season, LSU is 18-3 in November. Tennessee is 11-1-1 against LSU in Knoxville. Two of the last four games between the Tigers and Volunteers went into overtime, with LSU winning in Baton Rouge 38-31 in 2000 and Tennessee prevailing 30-27 there last season. LSU is 0-2 on the road this season. The six touchdowns LSU's defense has allowed this season are the fewest number through eight games since 1970. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will set an LSU record with his next receiving touchdown. He and Michael Clayton currently share the school record for career touchdown receptions with 21. LSU has not committed a turnover in its last two games. Tennessee receiver Robert Meachem is one catch shy of 100 for his career. The Vols' receiving trio of Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith is the second most productive threesome in the nation, averaging 215 yards per game. Tennessee has produced touchdown drives that covered 99, 97 and 97 yards this season. Tennessee averages 288.1 yards passing and only 113.5 rushing, a difference of 174.6 yards. That represents the Vols' greatest dependency on the passing game since Peyton Manning's senior season of 1997.
Buchanan's pick: Tennessee, 20-14
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: LSU 17-14
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Tennessee, 28-24
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: LSU 21-20
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