Even without Tennessee’s Hunter, Buffalo figures to be easy prey.
In their first game since losing leading receiver Justin Hunter to a season-ending knee injury, the Tennessee Volunteers will take the field at Neyland Stadium today at 12:30 p.m. (CSS) as a 28-point favorite against Buffalo.
The Volunteers (2-1) followed a Sept. 17 loss at Florida with an off week in which topics such as who will fill Hunter’s void, the potential return of injured freshman scatback/return man Devrin Young and the starting debut of junior-college transfer Izauea Lanier at cornerback have generated far more discussion than the Mid-American Conference opponent.
As much as it hurt UT coach Derek Dooley to see Hunter go down, dwelling on it, he says, only amplifies the pain.
“I think the most important thing we can do in our program is not worry about what happened, not worry about what could’ve been, what we might do,” Dooley said. “The only thing we can worry about is the circumstances that we have today, and that’s all our focus has been. It’s creating a lot of opportunity for other players to contribute, and hopefully they’ll be out there and they’ll be able to help us.”
Most any Vol on scholarship should be able to help against the Bulls (1-3), whose lone win came at the expense of Stony Brook.
It should be a good opportunity for UT’s running game to get untracked. Buffalo allowed 201 yards rushing to Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham and gave up 112 yards on the round to Ball State’s Jahwan Edwards.
The Vols have struggled to run the ball despite a second-year corps of starters on the offensive line leading the way for proven senior Tauren Poole and touted freshman Marlin Lane. Tom Smith, who’s battled injuries, could get some carries today, too.
Dooley still is optimistic about the Vols’ potential ground game.
“It starts with I never think things are as bad as everybody else does and I never think they’re as good as everybody else does,” Dooley said. “So I wasn’t in the mode of panic. So what I hope is we’ll block a little bit better.
“Tauren’s had a good week running. Marlin Lane has had a lot better week. He’s playing faster. He looks a lot more confident.”
Despite the Tennessee ground game’s iffy resume, Buffalo still figures to have to overload the box to stuff the run and pressure quarterback Tyler Bray while hoping the defensive backs can hold their own.
“I’m sure they feel comfortable with their guys against our guys, individually,” said second-year Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn, who wants his defensive backs to press and prevent clean releases at the line of scrimmage. “We’re gonna have to do a great job of putting pressure on him (Bray). But he gets the ball out of his hands quickly and he’s 6-6 and he sees over things and he’s got some guys that can run some routes at the top end in a quick matter of seconds.”
Dooley’s concerns about Buffalo sound genuine, especially when mentioning 6-foot-3, 248-pound sophomore linebacker Khalil Mack. He has nine tackles for loss, which is second nationally.
“These guys are very good against the run,” Dooley said. “They’re very physical up front. They have an elite player on the edge – an elite player on the edge who’s gonna be a high-round draft pick.”
Mack had two tackles for loss, including a sack, a forced fumble, one pass breakup, and three quarterback hurries in a 35-16 loss to Pittsburgh.
“He’s been blessed with some God-talent,” Quinn said, “and he’s utilizing it.”
Quinn was Brian Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, but Buffalo’s offense has lacked a home run threat. The Bulls ran 27 more plays than Pittsburgh (93-66) and had the ball 38:48 to the Panthers’ 21:12, but were still outgained. They also had more snaps (71-64) in a 17-3 loss to Connecticut. Senior quarterback Chazz Anderson is completing 58.6 percent of his passes (78-133) for 782 yards, three TDs and three interceptions.
Sophomore running back Branden Oliver has 100 rushes for 442 yards and five TDs. The Bulls’ two leading receivers – senior Marcus Rivers and sophomore Alex Neutz – average a combined 11.8 yards per catch.
Tennessee true freshmen receivers DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas could get extensive action today. Sophomore running back Rajion Neal has also been splitting out.
Arnett had eight catches for 59 yards after Hunter exited at Florida. It was the most receptions by a UT freshmen since Kelley Washington tallied 11 against LSU when Dooley was a Tigers assistant in 2001.
Lane has scored a touchdown in each of the first three games, the first to do so since Reggie Cobb scored in five straight in 1987.
Tennessee hasn’t started 3-1 since 2006, when it won 7 of 8 to begin the season.