Of all the setbacks the Vols have suffered in this their season of discontent, the South Carolina loss offered more insights than the first three defeats. The other losses were against top 10 teams, but this came against a rebuilding program with limited talent.
Now we can officially conclude that Tennessee isn't suffering from an offensive drought but rather outright offensive ineptitude. Unlike other contests in which the offense struggled, the Vols got most of the breaks in this game. They had great field position. They had the edge in turnovers. They had fewer penalties. They received excellent special teams play in addition to another solid defensive effort.
Tennessee even enjoyed the lead for most of the game. It finally established a productive running attack against an admittedly weak defense. With all of these elements in place UT had the makings for a dominant victory before a capacity Neyland Stadium crowd. It had the chance to end frustrations caused by high expectations and poor performance. Perhaps an opportunity to begin one of its patented November drives to a strong finish.
It didn't happen because the Vols did not get quality play from their quarterbacks and receivers. Rick Clausen, a normally dependable starter who doesn't make many big plays or bad mistakes, forced his first pass of the game on a deep out route and was intercepted. Unlike UT, the Gamecocks took advantage of the turnover and scored a touchdown to take a quick 7-0 lead.
Tennessee's coaching staff responded with the quick hook, and inserted sophomore Eric Ainge, who promptly led the Vols on a 12-play, 72-yard scoring drive. Ainge connected on 4-of-5 passes for 41 yards on the march and provided UT with a quick boost.
Big Orange fans had to be figuring this is the passing of the torch they had been expecting all season. Pressed into duty Ainge had found his confidence and was moving the team.
If this sound strangely familiar it should. Virtually the same thing happened when the Vols played Florida this year. Clausen was yanked after UT's second offensive series and Ainge entered the game, drove Tennessee to a 12-play, 83-yard touchdown that tied the game. On that drive Ainge hit 5-of-6 for 60 yards, but for the rest of the contest he only connected on 9-of-23 passes for 87 yards.
After coming out blazing against the Gamecocks, he only completed 5-of-16 passes for 24 yards the rest of the game. In the third quarter when Tennessee had a chance to put South Carolina away, Ainge hit 1-of-8 passes for four yards.
The early rhythm and success Ainge had established was suddenly exhausted and his confidence was waning along with his accuracy. It was apparent he wasn't going to get it back in the heat of a highly competitive game that was being rapidly reduced to a one-possession battle. The internal pressures were as responsible for Ainge's undoing as any pressure the Gamecock defense was bringing. He was locking in on receivers and rushing passes instead of systematically surveying the field and spotting open receivers.
In essence Ainge was combat ineffective before the second half ever began, and another change of signal callers was required. The fact the coaching staff didn't recognize that and take action to correct the situation is more of a concern than play calling or scheming. Whatever problems Clausen suffers from in terms of arm strength or athleticism, they don't seem go alter his ability to recognize defenses or hang in the pocket. He had made one bad pass to that point, while Ainge had made a dozen.
Sure there would have be criticism for pulling Ainge, and going back to Clausen, but not as much as there be for losing the game. That ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried was calling for Ainge to remain in the game until Tennessee lost the lead was absurd. The fact, the Vols did just that is unfathomable. Steve Spurrier used to shuffled QBs at Florida like a Vegas card shark and he was recognized as an offensive genius. And there's no ignoring that Clausen led UT to a field goal to retake the lead once he was called upon in the fourth quarter. With more time and the run option at his disposal, Clausen may have brought UT back again.
The truth is Ainge hasn't at any point this season resembled the QB he was a true freshman, despite the game experience he gained in 2004 and the added time he has had to better learn the offense. When a quarterback regresses that much under those circumstances you have to consider the type of preparation and counsel he is receiving. Knowing your players and how to get the best out of them may be the most important duty of a coach. It hasn't appeared that UT's staff has a good gauge on when Ainge is ready to play or known how to get him back on task when his focus and confidence has drifted.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot of pressure on both of UT's QBs to make something happen, and mistakes will naturally result. However, the staff has to anticipate such an eventuality and be proactive in averting it.
Clearly, Tennessee's problems on offense can't be laid on the heads of the QBs alone. There is plenty of blame to go around. With that said, there's an indisputable point that can't be ignored — Tennessee's offense puts an inordinate responsibility on the quarterback to perform both mentally and physically. For the Vols to play up to their personnel and strategic potential on offense they require not just solid efforts from their signal caller but superior performance.
Barring a dramatic and total turnaround by Ainge the problems can't be corrected this season, but the process has to begin with the aim of finishing with a winning record and bowl appearance. That will help Tennessee in terms of shoring up the fan base and recruiting while providing the extra practices they need to get back on track.
For sure, they can't continue to do things the same way and expect different results.