It was very much like the 2003 Tennessee loss at home to Georgia when the Vols drove to the 1 yard-line with the clock ticking down to half-time. The south stands were rocking, as the crowd was roaring in anticipation of UT taking the lead. That's when the ball was dropped on a botched handoff and a Bulldog defender took it 96 yards the other way. The Big Orange balloon burst and all the energy went out of Neyland Stadium. The second half was a mere formality as the Vols dropped a 41-14 decision.
The turning point came much later in the LSU game but it was every bit as devastating to Tennessee's title hopes. A second interception inside LSU's 10 yard-line ended the Vols chance of tying the score and sending the title game into overtime where they had been exceptional and the Tigers were 0-2..
It was the closest Tennessee came to winning an SEC Championship since 1998 and its third straight defeat in title games following the 2001 setback to LSU and the 2004 loss to Auburn.
These are the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-LSU game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.
OFFENSIVE LINE (84) No this wasn't a dominating performance as the Vols offense failed to achieve balance, control the football or convert third down opportunities (4 of 13). However the O-line gave Erik Ainge time to throw and didn't allow a sack. The running game only accounted for 94 yards, but the 3.6 yard average wasn't bad if UT had been able to sustain possession for longer stretches. As it was the Vols ran 14 fewer plays and averaged 5.2 yards per play compared to 5.8 for LSU. The 5.2 yards per play wasn't bad but the Tigers had the ball 12:16 longer than the Vols. The fact UT only ran the ball 26 times out of 66 plays was largely due to LSU's decision to crowd the box, play man coverage and force Tennessee to throw. Ultimately, it was the failure to execute the passing game that was the Vols undoing. This unit has posted some solid performances this year and the best news is that they are all back next season.
WIDE RECEIVERS (80) Josh Briscoe came up big for the Vols with eight catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers, Brad Cottam and Chris Brown had two catches each with Brown catching UT's first touchdown. Danarius Moore had a 16-yard catch. There were clearly open receivers that weren't picked up, but Taylor, UT's leading receiver, was held to 25 yards and that was a key since Ainge tended to seek him out on third downs. Gerald Jones could have been more involved as a receiver.
RUNNING BACKS (76) Arian Foster carried the load for Tennessee, gaining 55 yards on 21 attempts. However he also gained 47 yards on a one pass play for the Vols biggest gain of the day. We're also including Gerald Jones with the running backs since he was running the option and gained 39 yards in two carries. Foster and Jones accounted for 134 yards on 25 touches for an average of 5.4 yards per touch. As reliable and powerful as Foster is a quicker back may have had more success against LSU's defensive scheme. Lennon Creer just had one carry for a yard and no other running back played in the game.
QUARTERBACKS (69) For all practical purposes this is Ainge's grade although Jones did run twice from the QB slot and Jonathan Crompton ran the ball once. Ainge only completed 20 of 40 passes a dramatic drop off from his 67 percent accuracy for the season. He appeared to overreact to pressure the Tigers brought mostly on blitzes. He uncharacteristically locked on targets, failed to execute his progressions and forced the ball into coverage. In the fourth quarter he faltered much as he did when throwing the OT interception last week against Kentucky and the INT against Florida in the fourth quarter that cost the Vols a home win in 2006. For all his physical gifts and athletic intelligence, Ainge is a flawed quarterback that has be overprotected and patronized to the point that he doesn't perform well under pressure from either a pass rush or a big game. With that said, when he is on and confident he is an effective signal caller. He wasn't on Saturday and LSU's approach had much to do with that.
OVERALL (76) In short this was a bad time for Tennessee's offense to have its worst day of the season. Considering the Vols scored 52 points in beating Kentucky last week while LSU surrendered 50 in a three overtime loss to Arkansas, a better performance was expected by UT's O. With the players LSU had injured this was clearly a golden opportunity that was lost and will haunt the Big Orange for the next nine months.