ORLANDO, Fla. In the weeks leading up to the Florida Citrus Bowl, Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann undoubtedly spent countless hours trying to figure out how to slow down Tennessee”s explosive offense.
Paced by quarterback Casey Clausen, tailback Travis Stephens and wideouts Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington, the Volunteers” offense has enough skill players to torch any defense. But, during Tennessee”s 45-17 thrashing of the Wolverines on New Year”s Day, one of the Volunteers” biggest stars at the end of the day was a virtual unknown when the game started.
As the Wolverines tried and failed to contain Tennessee”s stars, reserve tight end Jason Witten stole the show. The sophomore caught five passes for a game-high 125 yards and, more importantly, broke Michigan”s back in the third quarter.
Michigan trailed 24-10 at the time, but appeared to finally have some momentum. Witten quickly took care of that when he caught a short pass over the middle and proceeded to outrun Michigan”s secondary. The 64-yard touchdown electrified Tennessee”s fans and put the final nail in Michigan”s coffin.
“It was a great pass by Casey, and we knew that was open over the middle after a couple deep balls to Donte and Kelley,” Witten said. “But, I tell you, I got a couple good blocks. I was getting a little tired down there at the end, but I just knew that I wasn”t going to be denied and I was able to get in the end zone.”
In the Volunteers” 34-32 win at Florida on Dec. 1, Stephens tore apart the Gators” defense, rushing for 226 yards. With that in mind, the Wolverines came out against Tennessee with a clear intent to stop the run, and they succeeded Stephens was held to just 38 yards.s
But, all that emphasis on the run game allowed Clausen to destroy the Wolverines through the air. He passed for 393 yards and three touchdowns and repeatedly found Witten wide-open underneath, which allowed the Volunteers to turn eight-yard passes into 20-yard gains.
“Witten”s breakout game was the Alabama game, and ever since that game, he”s just come out and gotten better every single day,” Clausen said. “The last few weeks, teams did a lot of bracketing, a lot of zone on the outside with Donte and Kelley, and any time we got Jason matched up with linebackers whether it”s man-to-man or zone the middle of the field is his. He”s done a real good job of just making plays and getting open.”
Considering how large a role the tight ends play in the Wolverines” offense, the impact that Witten had in Tennessee”s offensive onslaught was not lost on Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Following the game, Carr spoke highly of Tennessee”s surprise star.
“Witten is a guy who gives you the kind of ability with the tight end, the speed to get down the middle,” Carr said. “The big plays destroy the morale of your defense, and that”s what Tennessee did to us.”