Bobby Johnson sees a significant difference in the University of Tennessee in its first year under coach Lane Kiffin.
“They play extremely hard,” he said. “They play with a lot of pride, and I think that’s a huge step up from last year in general attitude.”
Other than that, the Vanderbilt coach notes, “it’s typical Tennessee for us – they’ve been great on defense and they’re going to have a running game that we’re going to have to contend with.”
Similarly, Vanderbilt has relied heavily on its defense and its running game for much of the season.
Both teams, though, have had issues stopping the run in recent weeks.
The Volunteers (5-5, 2-4 in the SEC) allowed Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster to rush for 282 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday. The Commodores (2-9, 0-7) have given up more than 300 rushing yards in two of their last three games, including 308 last Saturday against Kentucky.
All of which creates the distinct possibility that Saturday’s matchup at Neyland Stadium (6 p.m., ESPNU) will feature plenty of handoffs.
“I would think (Vanderbilt is) going to turn around and hand the ball off a ton because of what happened to us last week, and because that’s kind of their style anyway,” Kiffin said. “I just really think this whole thing is going to be about stopping the run. Obviously, passing is not the strength of their offense, they’re a very special running team.”
Vanderbilt is seventh in the SEC in rushing offense at 163.4 yards per game. Tennessee is eighth at 161.1, but has a decided advantage in pass offense (226.6-144.7). Much of the Volunteers’ success when it throws is due to the threat of the run with its play-action game.
“I’m not saying that they’re not good on drop-back passes because they are,” Johnson said. “They are just really excellent on play-action passes.”
The key for Tennessee is senior running back Montario Hardesty, who is fourth in the conference with 956 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He has topped 100 yards in three games and been within 11 yards of that number four other times.
Vanderbilt counters with freshman Warren Norman, who is seventh with 710 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“I think that we’re going to have to stop the run,” Kiffin said. “This is a team with a tailback averaging 5.5 yards per carry and runs the ball extremely well. We’ve been exposed in that lately. … Can we stop in the run and put them in third-and-long?”
Johnson’s thought are similar, although he’s not ready to concede the UT’s run defense is somehow flawed.
“I think Hardesty is one of the best running backs in the conference and he has all the tools to challenge a defense,” Johnson said. “Defensively they’ve had one bad game. Everybody has that every once in a while, but they certainly go after you and their guys swarm the football.”
• Jamie Graham returned to the defense this week after having spent several weeks as a wide receiver on offense. The move was made to provide depth at cornerback because senior Myron Lewis is expected to sit out with a knee injury.
“Jamie has gone back to defense and back to wide receiver and back to defense this year,” Johnson said. “He might end up covering himself.”
• Senior linebacker Patrick Benoist, who sustained a concussion against Kentucky, will practice Friday and will have the opportunity to play Saturday.
The symptoms have cleared and, according to Johnson, he was able to concentrate in class and take a test in recent days without any problems.
• Johnson said he does not expect the sizable Neyland Stadium crowd to be any more of a factor than others the Commodores have encountered this season.
“We play in a lot of great stadiums, and once you get around 60, 70, 80,000 another 15,000 is not going to be that much of a difference,” he said. “I think our guys are going to be used to playing in stadiums like that. They like it. It’s enjoyable. It’s a great atmosphere.”