Rough beginning

There were stretches in Tennessee's opener at UCLA when the offense looked pretty cohesive. And there were stretches when it looked like 11 guys who had never practiced together.

Most of the third and fourth quarters, for instance.

Leading 14-7, the Vols drove from their 21 to the UCLA 6-yard line only to see an Arian Foster fumble foil the march. Tennessee's offense then completely unraveled, gaining just two net yards on its next 13 official plays.

A three-and-out gave UCLA the ball at its 41-yard line, from which point the Bruins drove to a field goal that narrowed the gap to 14-10.

A 43-yard Gerald Jones' return of the ensuing kickoff gave UT the ball at its 47-yard line but another three-and-out led to another punt.

A 33-yard punt return by Jones put Tennessee in business at the Bruin 26-yard line but three plays lost seven net yards and a delay-of-game penalty forced the Vols to settle for a punt instead of points.

UCLA again exploited UT's offensive futility, launching a touchdown drive that produced a 17-14 lead with 6:51 left.

Tennessee's next possession would've been a fourth consecutive three-and-out except that quarterback Jonathan Crompton was tackled by the face-mask on a third-down sack.

Even with this reprieve, the Vols struggled. Foster lost one yard and Crompton threw incomplete, giving the Big Orange a third-and-11 at its 47-yard line.

This 14-play stretch featured eight Crompton passes – all incomplete – four rushes for 10 net yards and two sacks (one of which was nullified by a penalty). It was offensive football at its absolute ugliest.

"That's just the game of football," Crompton said on the post-game radio show. "Sometimes you're in a groove and sometimes you're not. That's when you've just got to find out who you are, as a player and as a team. As an offense, you fight back, and I thought we fought back after that stretch we had there. I thought we fought back pretty well."

Crompton began the comeback with a 10-yard scramble and a two-yard sneak that turned the third-and-11 into a first-and-10 at UCLA's 43-yard line. Two short tosses to fullback Kevin Cooper produced another first down. Foster ran for five, then Crompton hit Jones for four. Hardesty picked up two yards on third-and-one, then bolted 20 yards for a touchdown that put UT on top 21-17 with 1:54 to go.

UCLA retaliated with a TD of its own, however, leaving Tennessee with just 27 seconds to rally from a 24-21 deficit. After an incompletion, Crompton found Austin Rogers for 16 yards, spiked the ball to stop the clock, then hit Luke Stocker for 11 to the UCLA 30-yard line. Daniel Lincoln then nailed a game-tying 47-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.

After misfiring on eight consecutive passes during Tennessee's stretch of utter ineptitude, Crompton hit five of his last six tries in regulation. As a team, the Vols' final 11 plays (discounting the spike) produced 80 yards, a touchdown and a field goal.

How could a team look so bad for most of Quarters 3 and 4, then turn into a well-oiled machine the last five minutes of regulation?

"That's how we are as a team," Crompton said. "We're tough-minded as an offense – and I know we are as a defense. If somebody tells us we can't do it, we're going to do it. I know everybody in the stands was downing us, saying we've been in a slump, but that's just how we are. We're going to come out and we're going to prove everybody wrong."

Many UT fans are upset that the 18th-ranked Vols were upended by an unranked and unheralded UCLA squad. Still, Crompton says Tennessee's players remain confident in themselves, their coaches and their schemes.

"We're going to play the ball we play," he said. "Our defense is going to back us up. We're going to back them up. Special teams is going to do their job and we're going to win ball games."

Phillip Fulmer gave Crompton's performance a mixed review.

"He showed some toughness there at the end," the Vols' head man said. "Whether it was the receivers or the protection, it seemed that we were holding the ball a little bit longer than I'd like for us to. We tried to move the pocket a couple of times but he wasn't as accurate as I thought he might be ... or as accurate as he has been."

After spending the previous three years hearing Erik Ainge's performances dissected, Crompton gets to occupy the hot seat this week. Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's assessment may not be flattering.

"I'm sure Dave will be really hard on him, and he needs to be," Fulmer said. "It was the first ball game (so) how much can he improve from here?"

The answer to that question could determine whether the 2008 Vols finish 5-7, 9-3 or somewhere in between.


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