Vols Tailspin Reaches Panic Stage

It's become a hauntingly familiar formula for football catastrophe: put Tennessee on Shield Watkins Field with a heated SEC rival and just add water.

Throw in some nearsighted zebras, crippling injuries and mind-boggling miscues; place the ingredients under the pressure of a packed house and a national TV broadcast. Let simmer under lights for 31/2 hours and you've got yourself a massive meltdown with an ample helping of humble pie for dessert.

In what seemed like a sequel to this season's Florida game — call it nightmare on Neyland Dr. 2 — Tennessee (4-3, 1-3) saw its seven-game winning streak over Alabama (6-2, 3-1) come to a crashing conclusion — 34-14.

How bad was it?

• Well it all started with the startling news that leading receiver Kelly Washington, who had accounted for one-third of Tennessee's total offense while playing just two-thirds of its games, would not play or even dress out. Washington suffered a concussion two weeks ago against Georgia and didn't get medical clearance to play against Alabama.

• Tennessee's first possession would end in a 65-yard defensive touchdown scored by Bama DB Gerald Dixon on a lateral pass that was judged to have been thrown behind UT receiver Derrick Tinsley.

• The Vols final drive of the first half would flame out at the 6 yard-line when QB Casey Clausen forced a pass into heavy coverage and was intercepted in the end zone. Bama would then march 80 yards for a touchdown.

• In between the Vols would turn the ball over two more times once on a Tinsley fumble at the Bama 23 and once on a Corey Larkins fumble of a punt at the Bama 45.

• Tennessee's first possession of the second half ended on a deflected pass that was picked out of the air by 345-pound defensive tackle Ahmad Childress and returned 30 yards to the Vols 40.

• Bama turned that turnover into a 27-yard field goal that was aided and abided by an atrocious call on second down and 14. That's when Brodie Croyle, who had clearly been tackled, pitched the ball to Santonio Beard who clearly had a knee on the ground. Beard rose from his kneeling position to race 23 yards. To add insult on injury, Tennessee was also called for a personal foul on the end of the run that advanced the ball to the 8.

• Bama's final touchdown was set up by another Clausen interception that was thrown on a tunnel screen and returned to Tennessee's 1 yard-line.

• Not only was UT's first loss to Bama since 1994, it was the worst loss to the Crimson Tide since 1986 (58-26).

When the damage was totaled Tennessee had six turnovers, countless busted plays and only 59 yards rushing. Against Florida, the Vols had eight turnovers, untold busts and 99 yards rushing. The 18-point setback to Florida was Tennessee's worst home loss since 1994, until Saturday's 20-point loss to Alabama.

There were other similarities between the two home defeats. Both occurred despite Tennessee having an extra week to prepare. Rain poured throughout the first half of the Florida game and the contest was decided by the end of the third quarter. A heavy mist fell throughout the first half of the Alabama game and the game was decided by the end of the third quarter. In both cases, the wet weather had much more effect on Tennessee than its opponent.

In the Florida game, Larkins fumbled a critical kickoff return. Against Alabama, Corey's costly miscue occurred on a punt return. Like the Florida game, Alabama missed an extra point only to get another opportunity due to a Tennessee penalty.

Like the Florida game, Alabama's first touchdown came on a highly controversial call. Florida was credited with a phantom touchdown on fourth down and goal, while Bama got the lateral call. Replays showed the ball was extremely close as such passes usually are. Normally, unless the ball is clearly behind the receiver, the offense gets the benefit of the doubt. This seemed to be a case of officials being overly officious when calling an incomplete pass would have been the most judicious action. Whereas the aforementioned bad call on Croyle's pitch from the prone position appeared to be a case of outright incompetence.

The point is that neither Florida or Alabama needed any help from the officials, as Tennessee was busy proving that charity begins at home with 14 total turnovers in two games.

Another parallel between these pair of pastings was the fact Tennessee remained close statistically and displayed sustained stints of superlative defense. Florida had an edge of 34 total yards over UT while Alabama enjoyed a 65-yard edge. The Vols held the Crimson Tide to 298 yards total offense and forced two turnovers on an interception by Rashad Baker and a strip and recovery by Julian Battle.

Tennessee also had a good performance by its special teams as Dustin Colquitt averaged 47.8 yards on six punts including a 62-yarder that went out of bounds at Bama's 7.

Mark Jones returned a kickoff 87 yards for a Tennessee touchdown in the final minute of the first half and the Vols coverage units were solid all night. Larkins' two fumbles were the only blights on the UT's special team play.

The real culprit was Tennessee's offense which could be sued for nonsupport. In addition to the five turnovers it committed, the go unit produced just 223 total yards and converted just 1-of-9 third down opportunities. The Vols also scored just once on three trips to the red zone - on Leonard Scott's 13-yard reverse run — compared to Alabama's 5-of-6 production.

Tennessee's leading rusher was Jabari Davis who gained 26 yards on seven carries. It's second leading rusher was wide receiver Jonathan Wade who picked up 21 yards on a reverse.

In addition to the players who didn't get into action for Tennessee, like Washington and Demetrin Veal, others were extremely limited by injuries like Anthony Herrera, Michael Munoz, Cedric Houston and Clausen who finished the night 15-of-26 for 161 yards and a career-high three interceptions. Clausen led Tennessee's offense to just one touchdown in 55 minutes of action.

"It wasn't too darn good," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said of his team's performance in an interview broadcast on the Vol Network. "Offensively we were just terrible. Alabama has a pretty good football team, but we helped them a lot. We just didn't do anything in the second half to help our defense."

The absence of Washington was a contributing factor and the Vols didn't know until Friday that he wouldn't be available.

"We adjusted the best we could," Fulmer said. "It's very disappointing. We don't have any personality offensively and it's disappointing."

Since inept doesn't qualify as a personality trait, Fulmer's appraisal of his offense is accurate, but UT captain and offensive lineman Will Ofenheusle's comments were more to the point.

"It's a simple fact of us not executing," he said. "It's running the wrong route, getting a penalty, making a turnover or missing a block. We feel like it's hard to stop us if we don't stop ourselves.

"We've probably got about 50 high school All-Americans. We've got all the talent in the world. We just need to take it and execute."

To appreciate just how ineffective Tennessee's offense is, consider that the Vols have scored a grand total of one offensive touchdown in the first half of four SEC games against Florida, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. The Vols were shutout in the first half against Florida and Georgia and scored a special team's touchdown against Bama. In regulation play of those contests, Tennessee's offense has accounted for just seven touchdowns total. That's seven TDs in 16 quarters or less than one per half. In the first half of its three losses, the Vols have been outscored 50 to 7.

Tennessee made history that will live in infamy by losing to Florida, Georgia and Alabma in the same season for the first time ever. Tennessee has now lost two in a row and three of its last four.

The road ahead will get tougher. Tennessee plays its last five games without any off weeks and against teams that have scores to settle with the Vols. South Carolina is currently on the short end of a nine-game losing streak to the Vols. The only time Tennessee met Miami (in the 1985 Sugar Bowl) the Vols cost the Canes a national title via a 35-7 setback. (You think that might come up in team meetings?) Mississippi State has lost two straight to Tennessee while Vanderbilt has lost 19 straight and Kentucky 16 in a row.

Big Orange blood is in the water and the SEC sharks, along with one great white, are circling.

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