ND Notes

Two season-long adversaries bit Tennessee in the behind against Notre Dame: The no-so-special teams and the pitiful passing game.

It's hard to imagine that a storied program such as Tennessee would be so bad in the kicking game and playing pitch and catch.

During Saturday's 41-21 loss at Notre Dame, the Vols allowed a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 27-yard punt return to set up a field goal. They also fumbled a kickoff of the game that led to an Irish touchdown and fumbled a punt that UT recovered.

In the passing game, the Vols were 13 of 32 for 187 yards with two interceptions against a secondary that was giving up 306.6 passing yards per game, 114th in the nation.

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge continued to struggle and continued to regress during the course of the game. He had two interceptions, two intentional grounding calls, took a sack in the red zone when he should have thrown the ball away and failed to get out of bounds with less than four minutes left when time was of the essence. He also fumbled, but a teammate recovered.

Ainge saw his completion percentage drop from 41.2 percent to 41.0.

Former Tennessee star Tim Irwin described UT's passing game and special teams as ``abysmal.'' He's right. UT's receivers also are abysmal. They don't fight for the ball like Notre Dame's. They don't catch the ball like Notre Dame's. They don't get open like Notre Dame's.

No wonder Tennessee didn't beat the eight-ranked team in the country. No wonder the Vols are 3-5. No wonder they're wondering if they'll keep the program's bowl streak alive at 17 in a row.

``We'll bounce back, dad gum it,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``If we give the same effort, we can win the next three ballgames.''

Those next three ballgames are against Memphis (4-4), Vanderbilt (4-5) and Kentucky (2-6). They have a combined record of 10-15. But the way UT is playing, there is not a sure win in the bunch.

Should Tennessee win its next three games? Yes. If the Vols don't, it would add more embarrassment to an already embarrassing season.

Tennessee's five losses have been to opponents with a combined record of 31-6. No doubt, this is one of the toughest schedules Fulmer has faced but the constant mistakes made by the team smack of a lack of discipline and focus and coaching.

David Cutcliffe, former UT offensive coordinator, was asked how much of the blame for UT's failures falls on the coaches.

``What you see as a product on the field is what you've accomplished as a coach,'' Cutcliffe said.

And what UT has accomplished isn't much.

My thumbs up for the Vols against Notre Dame:

* Arian Foster rushed for 125 yards on 28 carries with a long of 43. It was his second consecutive 100-yard game. He's a better natural runner than Gerald Riggs Jr.

* The defense allowed just 14 points - the opening touchdown drive and the fourth-quarter drive when the score was tied 21-21. The other points came because of turnovers or special teams blunders.

* Tennessee showed spunk in fighting back from a 21-3 second-quarter deficit to knot the score late in the third quarter.

The thumbs down:

* Special teams play. Punt coverage was poor, the Vols fumbled a punt and kickoff and, according to Fulmer, Britton Colquitt isn't supposed to punt the ball in the middle of the field.

* Third-and-long defense continues to be a problem. The 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano came on third-and-8; the 35-yard scoring pass to Maurice Stovall came on third-and-18; the 73-yard pass to Jeff Samardzija came on third-and-10.

* Ainge's decision-making.

* UT's passing game. You can't complete 40 percent of your passes and compete at a high level - except in middle school. Ainge has been inaccurate, receivers have dropped passes and quarterbacks haven't been on the same page with the receivers.

Fulmer, Sanders Share Play Calling

After Randy Sanders resigned as offensive coordinator, Sanders went to the press box and Fulmer was on the sideline as the two collaborated on calling plays.

Fulmer said he called the run plays and Sanders the pass plays. UT threw 32 passes but called about 40 pass plays. Foster had all 28 run attempts by a running back.

Cutcliffe said he did not detect any discernable difference in he play calling.

Fulmer Says Quinn Not Great

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, a top five Heisman Trophy candidate, was 20 of 33 passing for 295 yards and three touchdowns against a secondary that had allowed just three touchdown passes all season. He was not intercepted.

Fulmer wasn't overly impressed.

``I wouldn't say he's a great quarterback, but he's improving,'' Fulmer said.

Quinn visited UT's camp as a high school prospect but UT didn't offer.

GAME NOTES: Of the 343 total yards gained by Notre Dame, the Irish got 151 on three pass plays that covered 35, 43 and 73 yards. . UT entered the game averaging 110 rushing yards; the Vols got 109. . Since 1987, Notre Dame is 24-4 after an open date. . Note Dame has returned an interception for a touchdown in three straight games against the Vols. . UT has seven touchdown drives of more than 36 yards this season. . UT had a streak of 30 possessions with just one touchdown before Ainge's TD pass. . Tennessee was one of five teams with a winning record against Notre Dame. Now there are four as UT is 4-4 against the Irish. . Fulmer is 44-5 in November.


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