Fumble foils UT's fun

With a first-and-10 at Penn State's 14-yard line, Tennessee was knocking on the door in the fourth quarter of Monday's Outback Bowl game. On the next play, however, the Vols opened the door for the Nittany Lions.

The Big Orange appeared poised to turn a 10-10 tie into a 17-10 lead until Penn State defensive back Tony Davis scooped up an Arian Foster fumble and raced 88 yards for a touchdown. That shifted the momentum and proved decisive as Penn State went on to win 20-10.

Foster's fumble wasn't Tennessee's only turnover but it was the biggest one and the last one. Wideout Jayson Swain fumbled on a reverse, leading to a second-quarter Penn State field goal and quarterback Erik Ainge threw an interception that killed a third-quarter Vol drive.

"We had two turnovers that stopped drives and the fumble that ended up being the difference in the ball game," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer grumbled on his post-game show, later adding: "We were absolutely our own worst enemy today."

Even All-America receiver Robert Meachem struggled. Double-covered much of the day, he caught just four balls for 33 yards. In addition, he dropped a potential 48-yard TD pass at the Penn State 3-yard line and was called for offensive interference on the same play.

With Meachem surrounded, Swain had a career day – seven catches for 84 yards. Tight end Chris Brown chipped in seven catches for 66 yards.

Ainge had a big game statistically, completing 25 of 37 throws for 267 yards and finishing the year with a school-record 67.0 completion percentage. Fulmer noted that "his numbers were good but there were some decisions in there that weren't as good.... The interception that stopped the drive was a senseless effort."

Tennessee's ground game showed some flashes. Foster gained 65 yards on 12 carries. LaMarcus Coker raced 42 yards for a second-quarter touchdown on his first rush of the day and also had an 18-yard gain on a pass reception.

Overall, the Vol coach called Monday's game "a hard pill to swallow," adding: "We didn't do the little things very well today."

The Vols didn't do the big things real well, either. Containing Penn State's ground game, for instance. The Nittany Lions piled up 183 rushing yards. Tony Hunt, Penn State's 230-pound tailback, gashed Tennessee's defense all afternoon, finishing with 158 yards on 31 carries.

"I was concerned about the big back the whole time we were preparing," Fulmer conceded, "and he did pretty darned good against us."

So did Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli, who completed 14 of 25 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown.

The Vols managed 17 first downs and 350 total yards. The Nittany Lions had 19 first downs and 380 total yards. Ultimately, the key stat was this: Tennessee 3 turnovers, Penn State 0 turnovers.

Fulmer called the Nittany Lions "a good team ... not a great team," but conceded that "If you help them, they're good enough to beat you."

Tennessee "helped them" a lot on this day. In addition to the fumbles and the interception, the Vols dropped some passes, incurred several costly penalties and seemed a step out of sync on offense for much of the day.

Tennessee had hoped to exploit Penn State's lack of secondary speed by going deep. Failing that, the Vols hoped to throw underneath and let their receivers make some yards after the catch. Neither plan proved successful.

"We couldn't get it over their heads," Fulmer said. "We threw a lot of balls in front of them but we didn't break any tackles, didn't make any plays."

The Vols may have missed senior receiver Bret Smith, who was ruled ineligible for the game due to academic concerns.

"He'd been there all year (playing) an important position for us," Fulmer said. "He would've had a chance to get some balls. If you were looking for an excuse, you might could use that, but we're not looking for an excuse."

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