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Tennessee football’s high-powered offense comes down to the trenches vs. Missouri

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It’s all about throwing it all over the field and scoring lots of points for Tennessee football under Josh Heupel, right? Wrong. As we’ve said all year, Heupel’s offense depends on the running game to make it go.

Never will that be more true than Saturday’s matchup with the Missouri Tigers. Expect an old-school SEC game that Eli Drinkwitz has employed all year with this team.

In order to beat Mizzou, the Vols’ offensive line has to win the line of scrimmage. Doing that to get their run game going will be tough, as Mizzou actually has an elite defensive line.

“They play vertical on the line of scrimmage,” Heupel said of Mizzou in his Thursday press conference. “Loaded boxes on tape. We have to be physical. Our combinations have to be right. Our identifications have to be right. That’s going to be absolutely critical in this football game.”

Missouri’s defense gives up just under 3.4 yards a carry on the ground, good for No. 18 in the nation. The 111.67 yards a game they give up is No. 19.

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A deeper dive, though, shows just how elite they are. According to Football Outsiders, they are fourth in line yards per carry and standard down line yards per carry allowed, and their stuff rate is ranked No. 5.

This team makes things tough up front. As Heupel noted, everybody needs to do their job for Tennessee football to make sure they can establish the run against that talent.

“Tight ends have to do a great job of it, as well,” he said. They’re always a part of the game when we’re in 11-personnel sets, and then I think our running backs have to be extremely physical in this football game, too.”

As far as running backs go, Jabari Small is the one power back the Vols have, and he got hurt last week at the Georgia Bulldogs. However, Heupel said he’ll be ready to go Saturday.

The offensive line has a lot to improve upon after playing its worst game last week, allowing six sacks. This test against an elite defensive line is a chance for them to make up for that performance.

“They’ve been really good in the meeting space, in the building, at practice,” Heupel said of the line. “They’re a proud group. Obviously, we didn’t play our best football last week. I think they’re ready to respond in a really positive way.”

Part of being able to play physical will be staying up for a noon game. The Vols have to be able to do that against a 4-5 team while putting last week’s loss behind them, which could be difficult to do.

Remember, this is a Missouri team whose defensive line makes the entire game ugly. That’s why they haven’t lost a game by more than one score in SEC play all year.

A fast start could really help the Vols overcome that, but this is where that time slot comes into play. Will they be ready to start fast at noon against a physical team? Either way, Heupel downplayed that necessity.

“(If) it starts really fast in this one, that’s awesome,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your foot down on pedal. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. You’ve got to reset and regroup, and do a better job of it than we did a week ago.”

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