This week, the Volunteers got all their drama out of the way before game day.
LaMarcus Coker’s dismissal and defensive tackle Demonte Bolden’s one-game suspension barely slowed the 24th-ranked Vols, who obliterated an overmatched Louisiana-Lafayette squad 59-7 on homecoming Saturday.
It was the largest margin of victory for Tennessee since a 70-3 shellacking of Louisiana-Monroe in the 2000 homecoming game.
“We put a whole game together,” Vols quarterback Erik Ainge said.
Tennessee scored touchdowns in all three facets of the game, but was extraordinarily efficient on offense. The Vols had eight possessions and scored on seven of them, with six TDs. In the process, Arian Foster had 100 rushing yards and two scores to surpass the 2,000-yard career plateau.
Perhaps most important, the Vols’ key players got some needed rest. Tennessee’s reserves played the entire fourth quarter, and four different Vols tallied their first career touchdown in the second half.
Players hoped the win, which made UT (6-3) bowl eligible, provides a jolt of confidence heading into the final three games of the season — all in the Southeastern Conference. If the Vols win all three, they’ll represent the East in the SEC championship.
“We ain’t got no choice but to be ready,” Foster said.
Foster came out ready to run, and did just that. Although the opening drive of the game resulted in a Daniel Lincoln field goal, Foster carried 10 times for 49 yards.
Montario Hardesty did the legwork on the next possession, but it was Foster who punched it in. He leapt over the pile from 1 yard out, then got into a scrap with ULL’s Jarrett Jones, who was trying to strip the ball after a TD had been signaled.
It was one of few occasions where the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defense showed any fight.
“We were outmanned in some positions and there’s no doubt about that,” ULL coach Rickey Bustle said.
A second TD run by Foster from 4 yards and defensive end Antonio Reynolds’ 70-yard interception return accounted for the halftime margin.
Everything seemed hunky-dory on Rocky Top, until the Ragin’ Cajuns drove for a TD to open the second half. Such a sight conjured images — however unlikely — of last week, when South Carolina rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit.
“When Louisiana-Lafayette scored to start the second half, we said it won’t happen again,” Foster said.
It didn’t. Tennessee scored 21 points before the quarter ended, all in a span of 5:31. Quintin Hancock started the onslaught at the 7:59 mark, notching his first collegiate TD on a 5-yard scoring strike from Ainge, capping Tennessee’s third 13-play drive of the game.
ULL’s next possession ended in disaster, when Nevin McKenzie blocked the punt and Antonio Wardlow ran it back 17 yards for a score.
After the Cajuns had to punt again, it took just two plays before the Vols piled on a little more. This time tailback Lennon Creer made his inaugural visit to the checkerboard on a 30-yard dash.
Creer finished with 109 yards, compiled well after the outcome had been decided.
“A week ago, we were concerned whether he’d get to play any more this season,” Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said of Creer. “He’s a tough guy.”
In the fourth quarter, UT backups tacked on 14 more points in a couple of sneak previews of the Vols’ future.
Jonathan Crompton hit Kenny O’Neal, the Vols’ highly touted but rarely used junior-college receiver, on a 49-yard bomb with 11:24 showing in the fourth. Then UT got a little fancy on its final touchdown. Crompton split out wide, freshman Gerald Jones lined up under center and ran it in himself from 12 yards out.
“We were in control, it was just something we were going to try,” Crompton said.
It was a luxury that has been rare of late, and should remain so. With crucial games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the Vols’ margin for error will be slim the rest of the year.
And so, the drama between the lines will return.
“It’s a very serious time, but we’re going to enjoy this one a little while tonight and watch some games and (Sunday) morning it’ll be all business,” Fulmer said. “And it’s not the next three for us, it’s the next one. That’s absolutely the way it has to be for us.”