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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.
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.