An Inconvenient Truth

No doubt, after the Arkansas disaster Jonathan Crompton will be seen as a big part of the problem by many Tennessee fans. Naturally, the prism of defeat alters perceptions and the quarterback is the most visible player on the field.

Used to seeing defenses that backed off the short zones in order to stop UT's run, some fans might be tempted to imagine Ainge flipping the ball in the flats and Meachem doing the rest against the Razorbacks.

However, like LSU, the Hogs had the defensive backs capable of jamming UT's wideouts, taking away the short stuff and knocking them off their routes. To a large degree Meachem was taken out of the offense by the physical of play of junior cornerback Chris Houston, who is listed at 5-11, 178, but plays much bigger. At times he simply manhandled Meachem. Even the TD Meachem caught was under heavy pressure and required a near perfect throw to complete.

No opponent until the Tigers had defended UT in such a fashion. Then again, no team had the DBs that LSU and Arkansas did. Not even Florida, although the Gators, like Arkansas and LSU, had the front seven to defeat UT's front six plus a back.

Also teams have learned you don't have to sell out to stop UT's running game. Crompton was under more pressure than any UT QB this season. All he did despite having no protection, four dropped passes and little running game was to complete 16-of-34 for 174 yards, two TDs and one INT.

Oh yes, it was also in his first start and it was on the road against the SEC's only undefeated team before a record crowd that was as fired up as a drunk hillbilly at his first county fair.

Crompton was sacked as many times in the first half against Arkansas as Ainge was in the first four games. If you want an oranges to oranges comparison compare what Crompton did against Arkansas to what Ainge did against Florida .

Ainge completed 17-of-32 for 183 yards, no TDs and two INTs vs. the Gators. That was in his 16th career start and it was in Neyland Stadium. Ainge was sacked three times in the Florida game for a loss of 32 yards, while Crompton was sacked four times by the Hogs, but lost only five yards because he ran the ball twice for 12 yards.

There's one report circulating the news industry that attempts to make the point Ainge is a superior QB to Crompton by noting Tennessee had at least 200 passing yards in every game except for the last two.

While that contention is factual, it is also highly misleading. True, Tennessee had 200 yards passing in every game except for LSU and Arkansas. However what's left out is the fact UT's 231-yard passing total against Florida included a 48-yard TD pass from Lucas Taylor to LaMarcus Coker. As far as the LSU game, well Ainge played the entire first quarter and went 1-of-6 for 3 yards and minus-10 rushing on a gimpy ankle.

Crompton's 11 of 24 for 183 yards and two TDs against LSU were compiled over three quarters of play. Extrapolate those figures over a complete game against the same opponent Crompton would have gone 15 of 31 for 244 yards and 2.5 touchdowns.

Ainge's numbers this season were amassed against California, Air Force, Marshall, Memphis, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Hardly murders row mind you. All are unranked teams except for California which doesn't do defense. Conversely, Crompton played against two teams that are currently ranked in the top 10.

Clearly the three best defenses the Vols played against this season were Florida, LSU and Arkansas. Those are also the highest ranked opponents they played and the games they lost. In five full quarters of play against Florida and LSU, Ainge was a collective 18 of 38 for 186 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In seven quarters against Arkansas and LSU, Crompton was 27 of 58 for 357 yards, four TDs and two INTs.

But this comparison doesn't end there. Against those same opponents, Ainge was sacked four times and lost 47 yards. He gained zero yards rushing. Crompton was sacked five times for a loss of 22 yards, but he gained 39 yards rushing so that his total (since sacks go into rush category) was a plus 17. That's 64 more yards Crompton accounted for against that trio of high-value opponents than Ainge did. Factor those yards into the comparison (and why the hell wouldn't you?) and Crompton had 374 yards total offense against LSU and Arkansas, while Ainge had 139 yards. Did I mention that all five quarters of Ainge's play was in Neyland Stadium while most of Crompton's were on the road?

Compensate for Crompton's two extra quarters of play with a little simple division and he averages 53.4 yards per quarter against LSU and Arkansas. Do the same for Ainge and you come out with 27.8 yards of total offense per quarter against Florida and LSU. That's nearly twice as many yards per quarter that Crompton generated over Ainge.

But wait there's more (as if Ainge-ophiles aren't anguished enough already). Crompton twice overcame deficits against against LSU at home. Ainge, who was spotted by CBS cameras doing the Gator chop on the sidelines at the end of the third quarter, couldn't hold a 10-point lead over Florida in the fourth quarter.

As revealing as these numbers are some will say they are skewered because 90 of Crompton's 174-yard passing total against Arkansas came in the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided.

That would be applicable if Arkansas had replaced it's first team defense. The fact is Houston Nutt played his starters all the way. Frankly, I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this. Casey Dick was throwing for the end zone with less than 3:00 to go in the game and the Razorbacks up 28-7. They also got starting strong safety Randy Kelly hurt on the last series of the game.

This is significant because it is part of the game behind the game. Houston Nutt has always been steamed that UT beat Arkansas 63-20 back in 2000. He wanted to score as many points as possible against the Vols. This is borne out by the fact Darren McFadden played in every offensive series of the game and had 7 of his 30 carries in the fourth quarter. Likewise, Marcus Monk was still in the game in the fourth quarter despite having painfully bruised ribs.

By the time Tennessee was down 28-7 at the half, the Vols were in full damage control. They wanted to limit the embarrassment and that's why they worked the clock as much as possible in the second half, prompting questions from the ESPN broadcast team about why the Vols weren't in more of a hurry.

The only time UT tried to open up the offense was late in the final period. It's correct Crompton had 90 yards passing in the fourth quarter compared to 84 yards in the first three quarters, but that's because threw 17 of his 34 passes in the final quarter. He was 7 of 17 for 90 yards, one TD and one INT in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. In the first three quarters against the identical defense, he was 9 of 17 for 84 yards, one TD and no INTs. Throw out the pick and his numbers for the final quarter are nearly identical to the first three quarters of the game. And why wouldn't they be? He threw the same number of passes.

Another question: why wouldn't Tennessee go to any shotgun formation when the Vols have had success with it the entire season? Crompton was a master of the shotgun in high school, but even in obvious passing situations against a rush the Vols couldn't slow, much less stop, he setup under the center. Do you think the fraction of a second he would gained from the shotgun might have helped Crompton in the fourth quarter when he was hit as he threw and the pass was picked off?

When it became obvious UT wasn't going to win this game (sometime after Arkansas drove 83 yards in seven plays to take a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter) Crompton went from being a freshman quarterback making his first college start to being a scapegoat for a program coming off its first losing season in 17 years.

You see, Crompton could now provide convenient cover for the coaching staff that has to be feeling some heat given the changes made last year and the 3-3 SEC record so far this year. Get Ainge back in time for Vanderbilt and Kentucky and win those two then you can say: "if we hadn't lost our veteran quarterback we would have been right there in the mix."

Never mind the 903 yards in total offense UT gave up in the LSU and Arkansas defeats. Or 506 yards the Vols surrendered on the ground. Or the 46 first downs they allowed, or the six sacks.

You may have noticed Fulmer took responsibility for not having his team emotionally ready to play while hinting at how much the team missed Ainge. That makes Fulmer look magnanimous while shifting much of the blame to the rookie QB. While he was at it he should have taken credit for an offensive line that can't block despite the fact he devoted the whole week to working with it and hand picked the replacement for former O-line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens. He may have also wanted to take some responsibility for a defense that was a downright disgrace. Or for another outbreak of the off-the-field problems he said were over under his command.

Hey don't take my word for this alleged conspiracy. Listen to what Fulmer had to say about Crompton after the Arkansas loss compared to what he had to say about Ainge after the Florida loss.

On Crompton Fulmer said: "Certainly we had some limitations with the young quarterback and some other injuries and things. I think he did just okay. He's certainly going to be a fine player one day."

On Ainge Fulmer said: "We really didn't protect our passer very well. Erik, it looked like, played very well and I think our receivers played very well and right now that's our strengths."

Notice he said nothing about Ainge being a veteran quarterback who, as "the strength of the team" could be expected to play better against Florida in Knoxville. Instead he said Ainge "played very well."

Don't get me wrong, I understand Ainge has a fragile ego and a history of meltdowns. Maybe Fulmer just wanted to build him up after a poor performance. But why wouldn't he be willing to do the same for Crompton who, in his first collegiate start, played better against Arkansas than Ainge played against Florida?

Throwing Crompton under the bus for the loss to Arkansas is like blaming Christa McAuliffe for the Challenger disaster. After all, nothing like that ever happen before she got on board. No, she didn't build the rocket, or design the flight plan, or maintain the O rings, but you can't deny she was inexperienced and she was there when it happened.

Like Crompton, she was just along for the ride.

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