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Rejuvenated Tennessee gets its crack at Ducks

A rejuvenated Tennessee team visits Eugene to play the Oregon Ducks at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

Once a national-caliber program that fell on hard times, the Volunteers are 2-0, having beaten Austin Peay 45-0 and Western Kentucky 52-20.

The Tennessee defense and running game have been impressive.

Against the Hilltoppers, the Vols forced five turnovers in six plays, and they have forced nine turnovers total through two games. Tennessee allowed just 302 yards total offense through two games. QB Justin Worley leads an offense that features running backs Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane (350 yards, 7 TDs) and receiver Marquez North.

The Ducks whipped Tennessee 48-13 in 2010, during coach Mark Helfrich's second season as offensive coordinator. The Vols were rebuilding then under coach Derek Dooley; they're rebuilding now under Butch Jones, who led Cincinnati to two Big East titles.

"Tennessee is Tennessee; Neyland Stadium, iconic football program," Helfrich says. "From a recruiting standpoint, they're always top of the tops. Tennessee is going to have talent, because of their facilities and tradition. Coaches have done a great job in recruiting. Coach Jones has it rolling."

The UT defense stands out.

"Just an SEC defense, really big up front, ends are a bit smaller than Virginia's but more athletic type of guys," Helfrich says. "They have an outstanding middle linebacker (A.J. Johnson)." Given Tennessee's turnover production, Saturday's game should be interesting – the Ducks don't have any turnovers through two games.

On a side note, the Volunteers' graduate assistant for offense is former UO quarterback/Westview High grad Cody Kempt, who transferred from Oregon and finished his playing career at Montana State. It's his third season serving as a graduate assistant — at Montana State, Cincinnati (with Jones) and Tennessee.

Cincinnati won the Big East and beat Duke in a bowl game last season.

The Ducks are coming off their second rout in a row, a 59-10 pasting of host Virginia. QB Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas led the way, accounting for six touchdowns (giving them 11 combined TDs in two games), as both of them have done nothing to quash any high hopes or even Heisman Trophy candidacies.

Has their superstardom surprised Helfrich?

"I don't think so. Those two guys are unbelievable practice players," the coach says. "De'Anthony has taken his practice to another level. Marcus has always been great in practice.

"But guys like Keenan Lowe and Hroniss Grasu have made plays go, too. Bralon (Addison) had a couple huge blocks. It's a team deal. Both (Mariota, Thomas) realize that as well."

The Ducks also got prize rookie Thomas Tyner involved, as he rushed for two touchdowns at Virginia.

There are some early issues springing from the 66-3 win against Nicholls and win at Virginia. The passing game has sputtered, the Ducks have not dominated with interior blocking and running, the defense has bent (but not broke) and mistakes have been apparent (11 penalties for 119 yards against Virginia).

The routs may or may not be misleading. Both games were basically over in the second half, and Oregon continued to pile on yardage and points; the Ducks had 772 yards against Nicholls and 557 at Virginia. The big thing is the Ducks are 2-0 after two commanding routs and still with plenty of room for improvement.

"Our effort has been outstanding," Helfrich says. "We're playing really hard."