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Bootleg offers Vols great escape from Huskers' pressure

By Mike Griffith, News-Sentinel sportswriter
December 31, 1999

TEMPE, Ariz. - There is such a thing as too much pursuit against Tennessee's football team, and the Vols' bootleg will break the backs of opponents who don't believe it.

One of the more lasting impressions of quarterback Tee Martin's career in orange is the image of him rolling out against the flow, running free on a bootleg.

"We scored six or seven touchdowns running that play, so it's been real good for us," said Martin, who leads UT with nine rushing touchdowns this season. "The bootleg opens up an opportunity for me to run or pass."

Vols' tackle Josh Tucker, a key blocker when the play is run to his side, smiles when the play is called.

"You just know he's going to run it," Tucker said. "I'd say there's at best a 25 percent chance he'll throw it, because if Tee can make just one guy miss, he's gone."

Nebraska middle linebacker Carlos Polk is well aware of Martin's threat to run on the bootleg and other plays.

"You can't think it's third-and-17, so they're going to pass the ball, because he will run a quarterback draw and get the first down," Polk said. "You can't try to just get that knockout blow on him - you have to make a sure tackle. That one knockout blow you miss, he can take it 90 yards on you.

"You keep your assignments or he will exploit you. On film, you see he's scrambling, and then he'll throw off the run."

Junior tight end Neil Johnson is often the primary receiver when Martin is rolling out on the bootleg. Johnson said he understands when Martin decides to run it.

"Coach (Randy) Sanders tells Tee that if he could just come out and hand it to me, he should run it," Johnson said. "It's a higher percentage play."

Besides, Johnson likes the idea of unloading on a smaller player in the open field.

"Usually I'll end up blocking a cornerback or an outside linebacker," Johnson said. "Really, all a tight end is is a lineman who can catch passes once in a while."

Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden utilized the bootleg often and effectively during the Tigers' 11-0 season in 1993. Bowden recruited Martin heavily with visions of Tee running the Tigers' version of the bootleg.

"It's a perfect play for Tee Martin because he is such a good runner and passer," Bowden said. "It's a play-action play, and because of that play-action, it must come off an effective play."

Bowden used to run the play off toss sweep action. UT fakes an off-tackle run known as the "slant" before rolling Martin back across the field.

"We start to look for the play when we see defenses are pursuing hard from the backside," Sanders said. "That play has kind of replaced the reverse in that it slows the pursuit down.

"Nebraska pursues hard, but they are also very disciplined. I haven't seen a reverse work against Nebraska this year."

Yes, but as Bowden pointed out, "Nebraska hasn't seen a quarterback who combines the run and the pass like Tee."

Even if the Cornhuskers contain the play, the bootleg still has its place in the Vols' attack. The mere threat of Martin running free affects Nebraska's mindset.

"It takes pressure off the run," Bowden explained, "because now, the backside of the defensive line, instead of closing down on the run, they sit back a little more until they see that ball.

"If they close too quickly, the bootleg will come back and beat them."

Tennessee also has a version of the play where it will pull a guard and send him in the flats to block for Martin. Having the blocker out front gives Martin more time to throw and allows the wide receiver a chance to get deep.

KEY STATISICS: Martin averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored seven rushing touchdowns over the Vols' last seven regular-season games. ... UT led the SEC in scoring (31.6 points per game). ... Nebraska ranked third nationally in scoring defense (12.5 ppg). ..UT converted 30.4 percent of its third downs despite its passing offense ranking 56th nationally. ... Nebraska ranked second nationally in pass efficiency defense. ... The longest run the Huskers allowed was 35 yards.

KEY MATCHUPS: Tennessee's offensive line against the Huskers' blitz package; Nebraska strong safety Mike Brown against UT's tailbacks; Polk, the Nebraska middle linebacker, reading Martin's play fakes and making the open-field tackle.

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