Death by execution

After his Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a particularly ugly loss in 1976, the late John McKay delivered one of the great comebacks of all time.

Asked "What do you think about your team's execution?" the head coach deadpanned, "I'm all for it."

Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer is in no mood to crack jokes these days but he thinks he can relate to problems with execution. The Vol boss is convinced that is the overwhelming reason his team is 1-2 heading into Saturday's game at No. 15 Auburn.

"We haven't had an effort problem," Fulmer said today. "We haven't had an attitude problem. Contrary to what some people might have said on television, we haven't had a leadership problem at all.

"We have a consistency of execution problem on offense from time to time."

The 2008 Vols are balanced on offense, averaging 179.7 rushing yards and 211 passing yards per game. They average 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and 6.1 yards per pass attempt. Still, the bottom line is ugly: Tennessee averages just 21.7 points per game, down nearly 11 points from last season's 32.5 norm.

So, why can't the Vols convert yards into points?

For one thing, Tennessee has lost seven turnovers thus far, with three of them occurring inside the opponent's 5-yard line. In addition, Tennessee has incurred an average of 71.7 penalty yards per game, many of them being of the drive-stopping variety.

When the '08 Vols aren't guilty of turnovers or infractions, they are guilty of assorted mental and/or physical mistakes.

Here are a few execution mishaps from Game 1 at UCLA:

A fumbled snap on third-and-inches killed the Vols' opening drive. Back-to-back false start penalties turned a second-and-7 into a second-and-17 on another drive. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton and tailback Arian Foster collided on a handoff attempt at the UCLA 34-yard line, causing a four-yard loss that knocked the Vols out of field-goal range. Foster lost a fumble at the UCLA 5-yard line. A sack and a delay penalty on consecutive plays again pushed UT out of field-goal range.

And here are a few mishaps from Game 2 vs. UAB:

An illegal shift on third-and-1 killed a second-quarter drive. Tight end Luke Stocker dropped a likely touchdown pass just before halftime.

And here are a few mishaps from Game 3 vs. Florida:

A 15-yard personal foul call against Arian Foster turned a second-and-1 into a second-and-16. On a second-and-goal at the Gator 1-yard line Crompton extended the ball too early on a handoff to the tailback, was bumped by fullback Kevin Cooper and lost a fumble. Tennessee failed to score on three consecutive plays from the Florida 1-yard line just before halftime. A holding call negated a 26-yard Foster run and another holding call negated a 16-yard pass completion.

How much blame the players deserve and how much blame the coaches deserve for the execution problems is debatable, of course. This much is not: Fulmer and his staff had better tighten the screws in a hurry or this season could turn into a disaster.

"Execution is one of the things you can do something about," the head man said. "You take it to the practice field and you do something about it.

"It's a game of mistakes. You've got 22 people on the field at the same time, and somebody is not going to be perfect (on any given play). You've got to be the one that makes the fewest mistakes."

Unfortunately for Tennessee, it was the team making the most mistakes in losses to UCLA and Florida. That's why the Vols are 1-2 and in desperate need of a quick turnaround. Fulmer believes that turnaround is imminent.

"We've been here before," the head man said. "We know how to respond to that. We've won 148 football games in my time here at Tennessee ... and we didn't all of a sudden get stupid as coaches."

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