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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Ground and pound: Florida and Tennessee battle for rushing supremacy

Two of the best rushing offenses and defenses in the NCAA collide in Gainesville

Florida's Dameon Pierce rushes toward the edge of his offensive line against No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 18, 2021.
Florida's Dameon Pierce rushes toward the edge of his offensive line against No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 18, 2021.

In the earliest days of football, teams built their offensive attacks around grinding each other into the ground by running the ball. In 1975, the nation’s leading rusher, Southern California’s Ricky Bell, finished with 385 attempts, while no quarterback threw the ball more than 353 times.

The age of ground-and-pound football seems largely forgotten, however. Only one running back (Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015) has reached 350 carries in the past seven seasons, and 17 of the top 20 single-season passing yard marks have been set since 2000. The game this Saturday night in The Swamp, however, might offer a blast to the past.

The Tennessee football team will attempt to play upset for the Gators in a battle of two of the best rushing teams in the country.

The Volunteers pride themselves on their offensive pace. They’ve run 233 plays through three games according to the team website, within the top 20 in the country. 

The engine of their high-octane offense has been the ground game. The Tennessee offense seemed left for dead with the departure of lead back and four-star recruit Eric Gray, who left town for Oklahoma this offseason. Gray accounted for over 50% of UT’s rushing yards with 772 in just nine games, and he toted the rock 57 times more than any Tennessee runner.

Instead, the Volunteers ran for 331 yards in their first game against Bowling Green, and they haven’t looked back since. Tennessee ran for 669 yards in three games, and they rank 23rd in the country in rushing yards per game according to NCAA.com. The team averages 4.6 yards per attempt, three players on the team have broken 100 yards for the season (with a fourth sitting at 98 yards) and 10 of the offense’s 16 touchdowns came on the ground. 

Junior Tiyon Evans and sophomore Jabari Small have emerged as the two most ferocious heads of the Tennessee rushing Hydra. The two combined for 296 rushing yards on 61 attempts and each scored two touchdowns in two games played, pairing to fill the hole Gray left in the offense. 

Despite the Volunteers’ rushing prowess, Florida puts them to shame. The Gators average a staggering 335.7 rushing yards per game, second in the country behind only Michigan, at 7.6 yards per attempt. A trio of players in the orange and blue amassed more than 200 yards on the ground, Florida punched in 11 touchdowns with its legs and the team hasn’t rushed for less than 244 yards in a game in 2021.

Senior Dameon Pierce scored five touchdowns this season. Redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright ran for 57 yards in three plays against No. 1 Alabama. Backup quarterback Anthony Richardson, who head coach Dan Mullen tentatively thinks will play after a hamstring injury against South Florida two weeks ago, averages 25 yards per attempt. Five different players have at least one run longer than 25 yards already this season.

Both Tennessee and Florida’s dominance in the ground game doesn’t stop on one side of the ball, however. 

Tennessee surrendered just 54.3 yards per game and 1.6 yards per attempt through three games. The Volunteers haven’t played a conference opponent yet, and two of their opponents weren’t in the Power 5, but they still rank fifth in the nation and second in the Southeastern Conference in rushing defense thus far in 2021.  

Florida isn’t too far behind, however, finishing 26th in the country in the same stat early in the season despite more stout competition. The Gators front line allowed 92.7 yards per game and 2.6 yards per attempt through three games, including a paltry 91 yards on 28 carries for the top-ranked Crimson Tide. 

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Expect both teams to lean upon their ground games in a contest which could call back to the early days of the sport.

Saturday’s kickoff at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.


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