KNOXVILLE — Taking the handoff, the running back dashed forward to the line of scrimmage, where he found a wide gap in the defense.
From there, the rest was expected.
Yes, a 59-yard sprint to the end zone was the type of play anticipated in the Tennessee-Arkansas game.
Just not necessarily from Arian Foster.
The Volunteers’ starting tailback had the big play of the day, UT’s defense held Arkansas’ Heisman Trophy candidate Darren McFadden in check, and the No. 22 Vols rode another strong first-half performance at Neyland Stadium to a 34-13 Southeastern Conference victory.
“None of you guys in here thought we could win this game,” UT linebacker Jerod Mayo told reporters, echoing a common theme from the Vols of perceived disrespect from the media. “As long as the guys in that locker room believe we’re going to win the game, we’re going to get it done.”
The Vols might be in the divisional driver’s seat, but Foster was the one with an extra gear. With most of the attention going to McFadden and his running mate, Felix Jones, UT receivers coach Trooper Taylor used that to fire up Foster.
“I called him every night and texted him to let him know that they were talking about the Heisman Trophy coming through Knoxville and they weren’t bragging about him,” said Taylor, who coached the Vol running backs in 2004 and 2005.
“We have guys just like they have guys, and I felt like we had to prove that,” Foster said.
Foster did so on the Vols’ fourth offensive play of the second half. He dashed through a huge hole in the Arkansas line created by center Josh McNeil’s crushing block and went untouched for the long score. The run gave UT a 27-3 lead, helping to salt away the victory.
Quarterback Erik Ainge observed Foster, a notorious talker who “never shuts up,” was unusually quiet and focused.
“I’ve got to hear it all the time,” said guard Anthony Parker, also Foster’s roommate. “Now that I think about it, I really didn’t hear much from him the whole game.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee (7-3, 4-2) silenced the Razorbacks’ ground game. The Vols held the Razorbacks to 127 net rushing yards. More impressively, the Hogs (6-4, 3-3) had a single first down before halftime. Only an Alex Tejada field goal prevented UT from pitching its fourth straight first-half shutout at Neyland Stadium, and a 48-yard kickoff return by Jones and 15-yard facemask penalty set up that score.
Ainge completed a modest 12 of 25 passes, including touchdowns to Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe, and did most of his work on the Vols’ opening drive. The senior QB threw on nine out of 11 plays, including a 16-yard TD to Rogers, as UT found the end zone on its opening drive for the fifth time this season.
That gave the Vols a 7-0 cushion, but could they stop the Razorbacks? McFadden and Jones, after all, entered as the top rushing tandem in the country and combined for a record-setting performance against South Carolina the previous week.
As it turned out, UT’s defensive players were tired of hearing questions about Arkansas’ running backs, and used it for motivation.
“We feel disrespected every week,” defensive end Xavier Mitchell said with a sly smile. “It’s all about taking challenges.”
The Vols met the challenge and succeeded. In the first half, McFadden ran for 25 yards and Jones ran for 3 on three carries before a deep thigh bruise sidelined him for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, Tennessee held the ball for nearly 21 minutes in the first half.
“You just can’t let those guys stay on the field,” Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. “McFadden’s too good.”
McFadden finished with 117 yards but Arkansas never really threatened in the second half. The Razorbacks didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, and when they did it was Michael Smith — not McFadden — who found the end zone.
“They kept us off balance. They just did a great job,” said McFadden, who ran for an SEC record-tying 321 yards against South Carolina last week.
The “wild hog” formation, which Arkansas used to great success in last season’s win over Tennessee and against South Carolina a week ago, was a non-factor.
UT defensive coordinator John Chavis employed a simplified game plan, emphasizing gap control and steering McFadden to the interior at all costs.
Daniel Lincoln hit a pair of field goals to help amass the first-half points, and linebacker Jerod Mayo returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown to account for the final margin.
“That took me back to my high school running back days,” Mayo said.
Thoughts of last year’s 31-14 loss in Fayetteville didn’t spark such nostalgia — only extra motivation.
“You can’t erase that loss,” UT defensive tackle Demonte Bolden. “I don’t care what nobody says, they whupped our butts last year. I feel like this year we just returned the favor.”
And, in the process, the Vols moved one step closer to Atlanta.