Earlier in the week I covered the Tennessee rushing game for you. Today we'll break down their passing game. First, let's look at some statistics.
|NCAA Passing Offense Rank||#13|
|NCAA Passing Efficiency Rank||#17|
|SEC Passing Offense Rank||#2|
|Average Yards per Game||264|
|Average Yards per Reception||13.2|
|Average Yards per Attempt||8.4|
Not too shabby. This is one of the better passing teams in a pass happy conference. No doubt they have some skills and they can light it up. You have to wonder did they pass so much because they couldn't run or did they not run because they could pass so well? It's kind of a chicken and the egg thing. But like I said in my running game preview, they were pretty balanced in rush and pass attempts, so I think we can assume this team wants to run the ball but isn't great at it.
The passing attack is led by junior quarterback Erik Ainge, or as the Vol faithful call him, Ainge-in-Orange. Ainge had an excellent year completing 67% of his passes for 2722 yards, 19 TD, and 8 INT. Ainge missed two games after rolling his ankle against South Carolina. Tennessee lost both contests to LSU and Arkansas in Ainge's absence. He came back against Vanderbilt and was terrifyingly efficient completing 21-of-26 passes. From what I've read he is not a very mobile quarterback, and if that ankle is still bothering him he may be even more of a pocket passer. But he has demonstrated he's a smart quarterback with a good arm, something Penn State has demonstrated trouble handling this year.
The stud of the receivers is Robert Meachem. He's an All American that caught 67 passes for 1265 yards and 11 TD this season. He's a big play receiver averaging 18.9 yards per catch and 105 yards per game. Standing 6'3" and 210 lbs. he's a physical receiver that may cause problems for the undersized Penn State defensive backs. Justin King figures to have his hands full with this kid.
Lining up across the field from Meachem is Jayson Swain who has big play potential of his own. Swain caught 42 passes on the year for 604 yards and 6 TD. Their third receiver is Brett Smith, a 6'3" 190 lb. senior that caught 39 passes for 453 yards and 5 TD. All three of these guys are big, physical, and dangerous with their ability to break a game open quickly.
The tight end is Chris Brown who is usually good for one or two catches a game and has only broken 30 yards in a game once this year. I don't expect he will be a huge factor which is good news considering active tight ends have shredded us this year.
The Penn State secondary is going to have their hands full with this group. I look for Tennessee to go with three wide receivers often to spread out the linebackers and look for a mismatch in pass coverage. Penn State will keep the safties deep to prevent the big play and leave it to the front seven to stop the run, which I believe they will be able to do. The front seven will also have to get pressure on Ainge quickly if Penn State is going to be successful in stopping the Vols. They can't allow Ainge to sit in the pocket and check down to his second or third receiver like Quinn and Cupito did. They have to get in his face early to hurry him into making bad throws. This may be difficult against an offensive line that was #23 in the NCAA in sacks allowed only averaging 1.4 per game.
I'm looking for Penn State to use the nickel often with Nolan McCready coming in the game for Sean Lee. I expect if the game is close or they are losing in the second half the Vols will abandon the running game much like Michigan State did. If they do we may see the nickel on every down. But I think Penn State will use it often from the start of the game. You may see it on first down or second and long situations. Tennessee's passing game is so good they almost don't need the running game. And if Penn State tries to play three linebackers dropping back into zone against three good wide receivers, that isn't a matchup I like.
Like I said, we'll see King on Meachem and Davis on Swain. With an extra three weeks of practice we may see the freshman A.J. Wallace get a shot at Swain if Davis gets beat a few times. Or Wallace may replace McCready as the nickel back to put more speed on the field. Donnie Johnson and Anthony Scirrotto have to hit anything that comes across the middle and make those receivers think twice about attacking the ball. Getting in their heads will slow them down.
The Holidays are almost here. So the family is in town and there's lots of stuff to do, but I'm still going to try to cover the Tennessee defense for you soon.