Sept. 25, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Following an impressive win over Missouri earlier this season, Georgia earned a reputation for playing "grown-man football." With the Bulldogs starting a stretch of four consecutive games against ranked opponents for Tennessee, the Vols know it is time for them to grow up.
"This little stretch coming up in October is always our toughest stretch," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "We talk about it being our toughest stretch and that we need to bow up and play like men. It's going to be a tough stretch but we just have to come together and stay together."
According to Lathers, UT's maturation process began with the team's hard work during the offseason and its preseason training camp, including a week-long stay at Milligan College.
"The camaraderie we built over the offseason should be great for us during this stretch," Lathers said. "We're looking forward to holding each other accountable during this stretch."
If the Vols want to leave Sanford Stadium with a win under their belts, the defense knows it will have to limit the big plays that have plagued it in recent weeks, something Lathers feels is being cleaned up in practice this week.
"It's assignment and techniques," Lathers said. "Guys have to be in their gaps when they need to be in their gaps. Up front, guys have to tear off and make plays. We've been doing a great job at it today and hopefully they will throughout the week."
Part of limiting those big plays will be forcing Georgia out of its comfort zone offensively, which is no secret as it enters the game with a league high 14 rushing touchdowns and an average 242.5 yards per game on the ground.
"Georgia is a big running team, so they want to run the ball and I think when you stop the run and get them to pass the ball you have them right where you want them," Lathers said. "Our main objective is to stop the run and once we stop the run we should have a ball game.
"We stopped the ball well against Florida and we know Georgia is going to come try to run it. We're going to stack the blocks and have some guys up front that can be some big plugs, so we are looking forward to it."
Despite their No. 5 ranking, Lathers knows the formula for success is the same against the Bulldogs as any other team.
"Georgia is a good team, but they practice just like we do and have great players just like we do with explosive guys," Lathers said. "They are going to make plays, we are going to make plays, but we have to make more plays than they make to come out on top. The biggest thing in winning the game is turnover margin and winning the fourth quarter, so that is what we are preparing to do."
FRIENDS & ENEMIES
On Saturday, quarterbacks Tyler Bray and Aaron Murray will be on opposite sides of the field as each strives to lead his team to victory in a pivotal SEC East showdown at Georgia. Off the field, however, the Vols' signal caller has developed a friendship with the Dawgs' leader.
"Actually, we were talking last night," Bray said of Murray. "[We were] talking about how we want to be able to put on a show, and about how we kind of missed some throws last year that we want to be able to hit this year."
Last season's Georgia game was a sour one for Bray as he suffered a 20-12 loss and broke his hand late in the game when he hit it into a helmet. This season, Bray is ready to go for the rematch.
"I'm healthy against Georgia right now, that's all that matters," Bray said.
This summer, Bray spent time at the Manning Passing Academy where he established friendships with several other quarterbacks at national programs with whom he still keeps in touch.
"We talk regularly," Bray said of his communication with Murray. "I talked to the LSU quarterback (Zach Mettenberger) and North Carolina (Bryn Renner) quarterback last night too."
But the conversation typically revolves around off-the field experiences.
"We rarely talk about football. We may send one or two texts about football, but the rest is just us messing with each other."
SOMETHING TO PROVE
Heading into 2012, the Tennessee running back corps had something to prove.
The group averaged just 90.1 yards per game in 2011, near the bottom of the NCAA, but have nearly doubled that this season (172.5 yards per game).
Sophomore Marlin Lane Jr. knows that the running backs have more to give and more goals to hit.
"I think we are averaging way more yards a game now than we were last year," said Lane. "Coming into the Georgia game, we are going to keep the run game going. We aren't going to let another team stop us from hitting our goal. We are just looking forward to averaging more yards each game and being more consistent with the average/game."
With the run game in motion, the passing game has been stellar this season leading the SEC in passing offense (341.1 yds./gm.) and second only to Georgia in total offense (530.0 yds./gm. to 513.8 yds./gm.)
"We don't have to throw the ball on first down as much," Lane explained. "We can look for another way to gain five yards. Just putting it into the running backs hand to gain five or six yards and make it second and four and a lot easier for our offense."
As a group, the running backs are playing better and more physical off the line according to Lane. But there are still things to work on and get better at, including pass protection.
"We just need to practice our protection because we haven't done it in a couple weeks," said Lane, "we were working on our pad leverage. We thought it would be more important to work on [pass pro] this week. We are just going to practice on it every day and work on ball security as well."
"We think that, the more time we give Bray the more open routes he is going to hit. That is the key to this game."
Another key to the game is coming out strong and playing all four quarters, something the team learned, and took to heart, against Florida.
"We just have to come out from the first quarter and play the whole game not letting the score affect us going in at halftime," said Lane. "It is always about winning the fourth quarter. Whoever has the most rushing yards, whoever is milking the clock and who can keep getting first downs, that is who is going to win the game."
O-LINE READY FOR IMPROVEMENT VS UGA
The Vols have made major strides with an improved run game in 2012. Tennessee is averaging more than 82 yards per game on the ground as compared to last season, as documented above. The offensive line has showed marked improvement through four games and hopes to continue that trend at Georgia.
"I think it's reaching that level [of being good]," said right guard Zach Fulton. "We're consistently getting better throughout the weeks so we just have to show that again this week. [Having a pass and a run game] helps the offense because if we're only passing then they're going to play to pass and they know we aren't going to run. It helps a lot to be balanced. "
This week's challenge comes against a tough defense, one that limited Tennessee to minus-20 yards rushing last season in a 20-12 loss at Neyland.
"We just have to out hit them and be more physical than them for the entire 60 minute game," said right tackle Ja'Wuan James. "If we do that, we will get the outcome we want."
The Bulldogs are limiting teams to just 16.5 points per game and about 343 yards per game.
"The (Georgia) defense does do a good job," said James "We are just going to go out there and do what we know we are capable of."
James knows the Vols need the run game to click against Georgia.
"It's very important," said James. "It's important against any opponent. It helps the whole offense. It helps the whole team, really. If we are running the ball, they have to respect that and maybe add another guy in the box. That would definitely help out all our receivers and Tyler (Bray), and just makes the whole team better."
STRONGER, SMARTER HUNTERAfter missing most of last season, junior Justin Hunter feels he has returned to the field with much more knowledge about the game and better prepared to face the challenge of a top-five team this weekend.
After his season-ending knee injury in week three of last year, Hunter says he's improved greatly in the off-season and in the fall thus far.
"I think I'm a better route-runner now than I was," Hunter said. "I've matured over the years and I've become a team player. Now I can focus on what's happening on the field and not in the crowd. I think [clicking with the play calls and passing] is very important."
That's a scary thought for the Bulldogs who Hunter achieved his first-ever 100-yard game against during his freshman year in Athens.
Although he wasn't playing on the field during last year's game, Hunter had plenty of time to watch from the sideline to see what was going on from a different perspective than usual.
"Sometimes last year, the [wide receivers] would be double or triple-teamed so we just had to move around a lot to get open," Hunter said. "[Last year], the running game struggled, but this year, we have a good run game so it's going to help us out."
Although confidence doesn't win games, it definitely does help. Hunter spoke highly of Georgia's defense, as well as their secondary, but feels prepared for the challenge.
"They're good, they're all experienced," Hunter said. "I know they have a real athletic group back there [in the secondary], Bacarri Rambo is back, too, so it's going to be tough. We're just going to try to take advantage of [what we know] and do what we can in practice."
"I know we had a good run game last week so I think that's going to open up the running game a lot," Hunter said. "I think that's going to help us out and if everything clicks, then I think we have a chance at winning."
One of Tennessee's key struggles has been playing a 60-minute game. Hunter says just "keeping our head in the game and keeping the focus on the field is the key."
The 3-1 Vols are doing a good job of not letting their one SEC loss hinder them coming into Georgia week.
"I'm very confident [coming into the Georgia game]," Hunter said. "We have a good team and everybody is clicking and having good practices and we haven't had any mental errors. [A road win] would be so big. We're going on the road to a top-five team so it would be great for us to get a win."
HARRIS' QUICK RETURN NO SURPRISEMost athletes take anywhere from six to 12 months to recover from an ACL tear. For Christian Harris, who suffered his injury on the first day of spring practice, it was five.
"He has recovered pretty quickly from his ACL," Dooley said. "From the day he got hurt, that is all he was focused on. How quickly can I get back. Generally, when you combine the right mind set with the right body type you come back pretty quickly. He is tough."
Harris' quick return came as no surprise to fellow linebacker Herman Lathers.
"It's a fast turnaround, but he is a guy that came in and busted his butt every day," Lathers said. "He is in rehab a couple of times a day. He's a guy that is going to work, he's always in the weight room working, so I'm not surprised that he is back this early because he worked for it and he deserves it."
VOL NETWORK STADIUMCAST AT GEORGIAThe Vol Network's on-site "StadiumCast" frequency for Tennessee's game at Georgia will be 93.3 on the FM dial. Fans attending the Tennessee-Georgia game at Sanford Stadium can tune into the Vol Network broadcast at the stadium by bringing a portable radio. The Vol Network's pre-game "Kickoff Call-In Show" begins at 2 p.m. ET/1 p.m. CT on Saturday.