Close but not close enough

When Tennessee had first-and-goal from the Alabama 4-yard line in the final six minutes, I had a flashback.

I remembered how Tennessee beat No. 6 Miami 10-6 in 2003 with great defense and a conservative, mistake-free offense. I remembered how UT fans - at least most of them -- applauded the win and didn't point fingers at an offense that mustered just 175 yards that day.

This would be like that.

Tennessee was going to beat No. 5 Alabama 6-3 or 10-3 with a solid defense and a close-to-the-vest offense. It would help salvage a season of disappointment with a 10th win in 11 years against the Crimson Tide.

Then we saw why Tennessee was 3-2 entering the game. Then we saw why the Vols' offense is one of the worst in the SEC.

From the 4-yard line, tight end Justin Reed jumped. Illegal procedure. First-and-goal from the 9.

After a 1-yard loss by Arian Foster, Rick Clausen was called for an illegal forward pass when he passed the line of scrimmage by about a foot. The 5-yard penalty and loss of down made it third-and-goal from the 15.

Then came the play of the game. Fullback Cory Anderson took a well-designed screen, rambled inside the Alabama 5, then fumbled through the end zone when hit by safety Roman Harper.

Yet another mistake by a mistake-prone offense.

Yet another valiant defensive effort wasted.

Alabama soon hit a 43-yard pass on third-and-8 over Antonio Gaines (why was he in man-to-man coverage at that juncture?) that led to a game-winning field goal.

``Our offense is like Murphy's Law,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``If anything can go wrong, it does go wrong.

``The offensive guys hate it because they're not holding up their end and it's basically because of mistakes. If you don't play well offensively and have penalties (10) and stub your toe, it's hard to win.''

Indeed. But don't blame this one on play calling. While I'm not a big fan of blaming everything on execution, execution was the culprit against Alabama.

Tennessee's plan was sound. Commit to running the football, play field position, limit Alabama's possessions and rely on the defense to contain Alabama's offense.

It worked. Except for Anderson's fumble inside the 5-yard line and Gerald Riggs' fumble inside the 10 and Lucas Taylor's fumbled punt at midfield.

Each turnover was extremely costly, especially in a defensive battle.

Anderson's fumble cost UT a chance to take the lead with less than five minutes left. Riggs' fumble cost UT a chance to score first on the Vols' second possession. Taylor's fumble led to Alabama's first points, with the help of Jesse Mahelona's 15-yard personal foul penalty.

``I really feel sorry for our defense because it played well enough to win,'' Fulmer said, echoing a comment he could have made after each of the three defeats.

Fulmer said there was a reason UT chose to run 35 times and pass just 17.

``Alabama's defense can be very disruptive,'' Fulmer said. ``We weren't going to let that happen. So we ran the football more and had some success with the play-action pass. We didn't want third and long.''

Don't blame the plan. Blame the offensive players.

While I don't buy UT's claim that it's executing correctly all but a few plays during a game, that was the case against Alabama.

Tennessee played its best, most complete game of the year against the Crimson Tide. But the Vols didn't make the key plays on offense when it counted.

If you criticize UT for being too conservative, then answer this: What makes you think that throwing 40 passes would have resulted in victory? UT threw 36 passes against Georgia and didn't score an offensive touchdown until the final play of the game.

UT is not explosive on offense. Its play makers aren't making plays. Its quarterback has limited skills.

When you're six games into the season, what you see is what you get. And you're not going to get a lot of points out of this offense.

Maybe you argue that UT isn't well coached on offense and its players haven't developed. That may be true. But the way UT played offensively against Alabama gave the team the best chance to win.

The Vols just didn't capitalize. Four times, UT started a drive with prime field position: On its 46 and 47 and on the Alabama 49 and 43. The results: One field goal, two lost fumbles inside the Alabama 10 and a failed conversion on fourth down when Bret Smith dropped a pass.

``We're getting closer to finding our identity as an offensive team'' Fulmer said.

That means more running, less passing -- like down the stretch in 2002.

It also means a lot of low scoring games, starting Saturday with South Carolina, which has lost its best offensive player, Syvelle Newton, to a torn Achilles' tendon.

So the Vols head into next week 3-3, 2-3 in SEC play.

Linebacker Kevin Simon vowed before the Alabama game that the Vols wouldn't lose again, but he did appreciate his teammates' effort.

With all preseason goals gone, will the effort remain?

``There is no packing it in,'' Clausen said. ``Either you come to work Monday or go home because we don't want you in the locker room if you're not going to give effort.''

GAME NOTES: Arian Foster (14 for 53 yards) ran better than Gerald Riggs (18 for 68), who suffered a significant ankle sprain. ``We'll plan on him not being there (for South Carolina),'' Fulmer said. . UT's starting field position was the 38-yard line in the first half and the 35.8 in the second half while Alabama's game average was its 26.6. . Brodie Croyle has now gone 154 passes without an interception, although Ryan Karl dropped one. . Mike Shula got his first win over UT, Auburn or LSU. . Alabama has outscored opponents 50-0 in the third quarter; it outscored UT 3-0. . After losing 9 of 10 games decided by 10 or fewer points, Shula has now won two in a row. . UT lost in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1930. . Alabama was the highest ranked team for the first time since 1994. . UT has had just six touchdown drives of more than 33 yards in six games. . UT sacked Croyle five times but didn't allow a sack as the offensive line played well despite the Vols gaining just 253 total yards. ... Alabama had just 47 second-half yards until its game-winning field goal drive.


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