KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee is trying everything it can.
Even against a defense that's friendly to opposing rushing attacks, the Volunteers continued to struggle to create yards on the ground. They ran for 120 yards on 45 carries in Saturday night's home win against Middle Tennessee State, a team that was 112th nationally in run defense entering the game.
UT's tailbacks averaged less than 3 yards per carry collectively.
"That's about like it has been all year," coach Derek Dooley said. "At some point you just say we aren't very good at running the ball. How many times can you get asked, 'What's wrong with the run game?' We are not very good running the ball -- better be good throwing it."
The Vols were good enough throwing it Saturday night, but a run game that entered the game second-to-last nationally continues to cause concern. Five tailbacks carried the ball in the game, led by walk-on JaRon Toney with 52 yards on 19 carries.
"I wanted to see JaRon Toney," Dooley said. "We are searching in the running game. JaRon has run really well in practice for a long time. He is a walk-on, so you just always dismiss him, but we are not lighting it up running the ball and I wanted to see JaRon. I should have played him last week."
Toney made his career debut against South Carolina, but he didn't carry the ball and missed a block that led to a sack. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound redshirt freshman ran for a state-record 50 touchdowns as a senior at powerhouse Alcoa High school. He picked up converted in three key third-and-1 situations in the first half.
"I was thankful to get [my carries], and the O-line was blocking great," he said. "I was trying to find a crease here and there. As a smaller dude, I just had to get my way through. It was a great opportunity."
Senior Tauren Poole had only 13 yards on 11 caries but did score two touchdowns. Rajion Neal had a 34-yard run on a reverse wiped away by a penalty, and Devrin Young got only 3 yards on a speed sweep.
"[Toney] has been running the ball since I got here," Dooley said. "I said, 'Man, I like that guy.' I've been watching him for two years now. He is not a big guy, so he's not very powerful. He's not very fast, but he is instinctive and he makes some really good short-yardage runs."
Lane the wildcat
The Vols' try-everything approach became more evident in the second half, when tailback Marlin Lane entered the game taking the direct snap in a wildcat formation. He ran for 7 yards on his first carry in the third quarter, and the freshman finished with 37 yards on nine carries.
"He did it in high school," Dooley said. "He has a nice calm back there. He did well, and I think we were pretty efficient in the wildcat."
Left guard platoon
Marcus Jackson and James Stone rotated at left guard for most of the game. The freshman Jackson took over for the sophomore Stone last week against South Carolina. Stone started the first six games of the season at center and one game at left guard.
Dooley said the rotation was planned going into the game.
"James has been doing well," he said. "Nobody is saying, 'I'm the left guard.' I told you guys when we made that switch we weren't just putting James on the shelf. We wanted to see if Marcus could play his way into taking the position. We will just let them keep competing."
Two of MTSU's captains were former stars at South Pittsburg High School.
Jiajuan Fennell, a redshirt freshman defensive end, was a Mr. Football finalist as a senior for the Pirates in 2009. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder starts and had 18 tackles, five tackles for loss, two forced fumble and a fumble recovery entering Saturday night's game.
David Jones won the 2008 Mr. Football award as a South Pittsburg running back. The 5-11, 196-pound redshirt sophomore is a backup linebacker for the Blue Raiders. The Memphis native had 21 tackles and two fumble recoveries going into Saturday night.
Alex Stuart, MTSU's starting right tackle who played at Oak Ridge High, is the son of Jeff Stuart, a four-year letter-winner at UT who started at right tackle in 1988. Legendary UT offensive lineman Harry Galbreath is Alex's godfather.
Punter Josh Davis, a former Rhea County standout who briefly was a walk-on for the Vols, shared punting duties with Nathaniel Toulson. Starting right guard Preston Bailey is another former Vol.
Injured starting quarterback Tyler Bray said in the tunnel after the game that he gets the cast on his broken right thumb off Monday for examination, though he won't play at No. 8 Arkansas next week. ... Freshman tight end Cameron Clear, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound Memphis native, made his first collegiate catch, a 4-yard reception in the second quarter. ... Defensive lineman Malik Jackson, defensive back Prentiss Waggner and right tackle Ja'Wuan James were UT's captains for the game.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...