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Tennessee’s Stout Running Game Facing Toughest Test To Date Against Texas A&M

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Best meets best when Tennessee football welcomes Texas A&M at Neyland Stadium for a SEC showdown Saturday afternoon.

Tennessee boasts the SEC’s best running game. With their three-headed monster at running back leading the way, the Vols are averaging a SEC best 230 rushing yards per game. But the challenge gets all the more difficult for Tennessee’s running game this weekend.

The Vols have faced three lesser non conference opponents and the SEC’s seventh (Florida) and 12th (South Carolina) best run defenses through five weeks. Josh Heupel’s third Tennessee team is approaching a three week stretch that will pit them against three of the conferences best run defenses.

That starts against a Texas A&M defense that leads the conference allowing just 84 rushing yards per game.

“They are good at stopping the run,” Heupel said earlier this week.

“They change the picture up on your front,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. “On your ID calls, they change it from snap-to-snap, and then they have talented players up front that they turn loose to go after the football. So, they present a unique challenge this week.”

Any stat or advanced metric is going to say the Aggies have an elite run defense. Texas A&M’s 77.7 PFF run defense grade is strong and the Aggies are coming off a stout performance where they held Alabama’s strong running game to just 23 yards. The stat is slightly misleading because of sacks — Jase McClellan ran for 45 yards on 12 carries — but Texas A&M had answers for the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack.

More From RTI: What Jimbo Fisher Said About Tennessee Football Earlier This Week

But more than just the numbers, Texas A&M’s defensive front passes the eye test. The Aggies’ defensive line is littered with five-stars from Jimbo Fisher’s recent recruiting success and are as physically impressive as any group in the league.

That shows up in Texas A&M’s SEC leading 26 sacks this season but is also clear in its ability to bottle up opponents run games.

“First of all, they have really good skill, and when I say that, I am talking about their big skill up front, too,” Heupel said. “They are physical, they are dynamic, they are thick, they play strong, they are multiple up front. They have created a bunch of negative yardage plays in the run game, and that has given them the ability to go get after the quarterback, (creating) second-and-long, third-and-long, too.”

Texas A&M’s vicious run defense makes things interesting for a Tennessee offense that’s been limited in its intermediate, and to a lesser extent, downfield passing game this season. Expecting a heavy dose of screen passes is fair.

Tennessee has leaned on its perimeter screen game all season and its importance will increase if the Vols’ rushing offense scuffles. Bru McCoy’s absence will show up there as the senior was both a physical runner in the screen game and the Vols’ best downfield blocker.

Heupel’s success coming off open dates in his career lends to optimism for the Vols’ offense against the Aggies. The open date came at a good time for that very reason. Tennessee needs some creativity to have sustained success against the Aggies and Heupel and his staff have had time to prepare for the problems the Aggies’ offense presents.

Kickoff at Neyland Stadium is at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday afternoon. Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Jenny Dell are on the call for CBS.

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