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Rocky Top Talk Guest Post

My buddy, Joel, from Rocky Top Talk offers the following preview of the Outback Bowl from the perspective of a Tennessee fan. My first impression is it's a fair analysis, but I obviously have a few differences of opinion. I will offer my counter comments in the blocks. Please read it and enjoy.
Outback Bowl, Tennessee Volunteers v. Penn State Nittany Lions
UT rush v. PSU defense
UT pass v. PSU defense
PSU rush v. UT defense
PSU pass v. UT defense
UT punting v. PSU punt return
PSU punting v. UT punt return


Tennessee running game v. Penn State defense

LaMarcus Coker is out of the dog house, but he's not going to start against the Nittany Lions.  Add to that (1) the fact that the Tennessee offensive line has not shown that it can both run block and pass protect in the same game, (2) the fact that Jacques McClendon will be starting in place of an injured Anthony Parker, and (3) the fact that PSU is ranked 10th in the nation against the run, and things could get hairy for the Vols' rushing game.  Hardesty and Foster especially will struggle against PSU's front four.  Sure, 12-game starter Ed Johnson has been suspended, but we'll still have to deal with tackle Jay Alford, who can wreak havoc in the backfield.  Expect UT to double-team him and still struggle to gain yards on the ground.  If by chance a ball carrier gets by the line of scrimmage he'll likely be blown up by PSU's awesome linebacking corps, headlined by Paul Posluszny.

If Coker gets in early, he could do some damage. Coker's gained 660 yards this season in limited playing time, and Penn State is particularly susceptible to Coker's strength -- outside speed. Don't be surprised if Coker has another 80- to 90-yard jaunt like he did against Marshall and Vanderbilt. Still, you have to give a clear advantage to the Penn State rush defense.

Comments by BSD

I'm not sure where Joel gets the idea that Penn State is susceptible to the outside run. I think they contained the outside run pretty well this year. I'm also not sure about Coker having an 80 or 90 yard run. The only long run of that nature I can remember anyone running against Penn State this year was Rashard Mendenhall's 79 yard run in the Illinois game. Even on that play Justin King still caught him from behind before he got to the house. So if Tennessee fans are counting on the outside run being there and Coker breaking an 80 yard run, I think they are hanging their hats on false hopes.

Tennessee passing game v. Penn State defense

The Vols have proven this year that they really don't need to rely on the running backs to move the ball.  Nobody, save for Arkansas' corners wrestling Meachem to the ground at the line of scrimmage, has had an answer for Ainge-to-Meachem. If Penn State tries too hard and devotes too much attention to this effort, Ainge will simply check off to Jayson Swain or Bret Smith, assuming he gets academically eligible in time to play. The size of the receivers should give the secondary problems, and their speed should give the linebackers problems.  And don't forget the tight ends. Brad Cottam has been coming on, and if what Mike says about PSU being vulnerable to good tight ends is right, Cottam could have a banner day. Clear advantage to Tennessee's passing offense.

Comments by BSD

I see a common theme among the Tennessee blogs of selling the Penn State pass defense short. This is a defense ranked #13 in the NCAA in pass defense efficiency. All year long only three teams broke 200 yards passing against the Lions. Two of them had blazing All-American type tight ends, and Michigan State needed 62 passing attempts to do it. While Brad Cottam may be good, I doubt he's All American caliber since he doesn't even get the bulk of the playing time. He may have three or four catches, but I doubt he will be a major factor. I think Tennessee overall will have success and get yards through the air, but I don't see them lighting up the scoreboard for 30 points.

Penn State running game v. Tennessee defense

Penn State's running game is merely average, but Tennessee's rushing defense (71st in the nation) has shown a knack for making average rushing attacks look exceptional. The Vols' front four is simply too young and too shallow. PSU running back Tony Hunt is apparently prone to fumbling, though, so there's that. Unless the linebackers can knock the ball loose a time or two, look for the Nittany Lions to eat up yards and time of possession on the ground. Clear advantage for PSU here.

Comments by BSD

No arguments here. Penn State's rushing attack looked average statistically, but then Penn State played Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Against lesser competition they ran the ball very well. Tennessee's defensive line has suffered some injuries and moved some people around, and they weren't that good to begin with. Their line is undersized, and Penn State should have success running the ball.

Penn State passing game v. Tennessee defense

Penn State's receiving corps -- Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood -- appear to be quite solid. Fortunately for the Vols, however, they'll be going against the strength of UT's defense. The Jonathans (Wade and Hefney) are ball hawks that should be good for an interception or two in this game. The entire secondary excels at baiting the QB by playing off their man and then utilizing their speed to close the gap and out-battle the receiver for the ball.  The PSU QB, who apparently isn't all that accurate anyway, may misjudge the speed of the secondary and give up an interception or two before realizing he's being baited. Add to that the fact that the QB's decision-making falls into the questionable category when under duress and the fact that the line's pass protection often breaks down, it could be a good night for the Volunteer secondary. Advantage for Tennessee.

Comments by BSD

Tennessee definitely has an advantage in this matchup. My only quibble with Joel's analysis is his assertion that Morelli is inaccurate. Morelli has a good arm and can put the ball anywhere he wants. His problem is he chooses bad spots and stares down his receivers. You like to think your starting quarterback is smart enough not to throw two interceptions, but it is possible if Morelli doesn't make good decisions.

Tennessee kicking v. Penn State kicking

Tennessee's James Wilhoit is solid, has great range, and only misses field goals in non-pressure situations. PSU's Kevin Kelly is fine at field goals, especially inside the 40, but is not as consistent as Wilhoit.  Penn State kickoff return men Rodney Kinlaw and A.J. Wallace are capable of taking it the distance, while Tennessee's return men (whomever they are) can only run to the 15 and fall down. Fortunately, most of Wilhoit's kickoffs result in touchbacks, so the danger for the Vols should be held in check. Give Tennessee an advantage due to Wilhoit and Colquitt.

Comments by BSD

Nothing to add here. I don't know anything about Tennessee's kicking game, but I know I have to close my eyes or leave the room whenever Kelly has a kick over 30 yards. Penn State may be doing Tennessee a favor if Kelly kicks his kickoffs through the endzone. Tennessee's kick return game is one of the worst in the NCAA.

Tennessee punting and punt coverage v. Penn State's punt return game

Britton Colquitt is superb for the Volunteers, combining distance, height, and placement as the situation dictates, all of which is often negated if the punt returner is allowed to catch the ball and run with it. Nittany Lions' return man Derrick Williams is dangerous, so this will all come down to Colquitt's ability to keep it away from him, which he should be able to do. Advantage Tennessee.

Penn State punting and punt coverage v. Tennessee's punt return game

Penn State's punter, Jeremy Kapinos, is solid, but he'll be kicking to Tennessee's Jonathan Hefney, who is also solid and who can even break a long one every now and then. Penn State's punt coverage is apparently excellent, though, as its net punting yardage is only about a yard and a half off its gross. Call this one a push.

Comments by BSD

I'm not sure how you give Tennessee the advantage in their punting game and call this a push. Jeremy Kapinos finished third in the voting for the Ray Guy award and owns just about every record there is for Penn State punters. His average isn't mind blowing, but of his 57 punts this year 19 landed inside the 20 and only 23 were returned for a 4.6 yard average. I predict Penn State will win the punting game like we have all year.

What will happen

PSU will lean heavily on running back Tony Hunt, who will be effective eating up large chunks of yards and minutes on the ground, but will fumble at least once at a particularly inopportune time. Success in the running game will lead to what PSU QB will deem to be play action opportunities but which will be defended well and/or intercepted by the speedy UT secondary. Penn State will shut down UT's running game, except for one long run by Coker around the edge, but it won't matter, as Ainge in Orange will pick the Penn State secondary apart, utilizing a healthy dose of Meachem and a dash of Swain, Smith, and Cottam.

Prediction: Volunteers 27, Nittany Lions 16

Comments by BSD

I don't know. Let's review what Joel is counting on.
  1. Tony Hunt will fumble the ball away once
  2. Anthony Morelli will throw two interceptions
  3. Coker will break an 80 yard run
  4. Hefney will break a long punt return
  5. Ainge will pick the secondary apart
Number 5 scares me, but numbers 1-4 are grasping at straws if you ask me.

Tony Hunt carried the ball 246 times this year and fumbled six times. He's not exactly a fumble machine, but he is good for one every other game. He did it twice in his last game, so I suspect protecting the ball will be in the forefront of his mind.

Morelli had one game this year where he threw multiple interceptions. That was the Ohio State game, and two of those interceptions were in the final minutes of the game when PSU was getting desperate for a score and he was forcing the situation.

With number 3, like I said, only one running back broke a long run all year. I wouldn't count on Coker doing it. Hefney breaking a long run? Again, hasn't happened all year.

It sounds to me like Joel is counting on a lot of things going well which makes me feel good. Myself, I think if Penn State comes out running the ball like they are capable of doing and plays solid defense keeping everything in front of them not giving up the big play Penn State stands a good chance of winning.