Offense Derailed, D Denied

It was a throwback game Tennessee would like to bury deep in the past, but the memory is too near and the disappointment too severe to eliminate its effects altogether, and so the Vols must turn urgency into the energy needed to conquer adversity.

It's a tall order to be sure given the opponents and venues that lie ahead and the inexperience that exists for Tennessee in the press box and behind center. At this point it qualifies as the single greatest in-season challenge Phillip Fulmer has ever faced in his 16-year run as head coach on The Hill.

The gravity of the situation exceeds the 2005 ‘perfect storm' because the Vols got off to a 3-1 start that year, and were always within one game of .500 until they fell to 4-6 in game 10 against Vanderbilt. It's also tougher than the 1994 campaign that also started 1-3 because that team was loaded with young offensive talent ready to ripen.

Luckily there's a 12-game regular season schedule this year which allows teams to qualify for bowl games six wins — a scenario that still provides for a losing season. A great case in point for fewer bowl games.

Trying to project wins and losses at this point is futile. Teams change as seasons unfold, players get injured others step up and some fall back. Strategic and personnel adjustments are made. It's never a stagnate process but one teeming with a kinetic quality and dynamics that are ever evolving in a mix commonly referred to as team chemistry.

Although it is a team sport much of the focus and scrutiny falls on quarterback Jonathan Crompton who has had his struggles in his first season as a starter, taking on a new offense brought in by a new coordinator and a overhauled staff.

In defense of Crompton that's a tough assignment. He's playing under his third offensive coordinator in four years. Randy Sanders' offense was different than David Cutcliffe's although they both developed down the line from the system Walt Harris brought to Tennessee. What he's learning now is completely different than either of those. In some respects it may be tougher forgetting the old offense than learning a new one.

Admittedly his accuracy was atrocious at Auburn and the second missed exchange in as many weeks at the goal line was inexcusable. The many mixups on routes may not have been all his fault but his decision making wasn't sound. He tended to lock on his target which made it easier for DBs to break on the ball and for D-linemen to time their jumps and knock down passes. With that said there are exactly open receivers running all over the field. The receivers aren't getting separation and the press coverage most teams are deploying are disrupting the timing phase of the offense.

The decision to split reps this week between Crompton and Nick Stephens. It could be Crompton reacts positively to the competition. He may come off the bench to perform better than he is currently. Stephens may prove to be the answer, but protection isn't any better or receivers more open than they were against Auburn taking over as a starter might prove to undermine his confidence. Against Auburn Crompton was hurried six times, knocked down eight and sacked twice. He also had a couple of passes deflected.

Despite all the mistakes Crompton made against Auburn he did show a lot of heart as well. His willingness to take on tacklers and pick up positive yardage is commendable but he has to be more judicious about picking his spots.

The good news for the Vols is the play of the defense which is head and shoulders above this time last year. UT didn't get consistent pressure with its down four linemen but the Vols have held two ranked SEC teams to under 300 total yards.

Likewise the kicking game took a sharp up tick from the first three games. Kickoffs were deeper, field goals were accurate and coverage was outstanding. Kudos for Chad Cunningham who kept the Tigers pinned up inside their own 23 most of the second half.

Most importantly it's a team that is still playing hard and that will take the Vols a long way over the last eight games. It's still a team that has lost two games by a total of four points. The last two years the Vols have been winning the close games and it's not uncommon for the pendulum top swing back.

What follows is the top to bottom grades for each of UT's offensive and defensive units as well as special teams, and an overall grade.

SPECIAL TEAMS (95) This was the best effort of the season for the Vols on special teams. They didn't break any long returns but they clearly won the kicking game against a one of the best coached special team units in the conference.

DEFENSIVE LINE (92) UT Controlled the line of scrimmage and held Auburn to 97 yards rushing in 38 carries. Dan "Dancing Bear" Williams is turning into a force up front as displayed by eight tackles.

LINEBACKERS (90) A solid effort turned in by the linebackers who were active and physical. Much better tackling than in prior games this season. Ellix Wilson who had to leave with a shoulder injury is enjoying a big season. He has 10 tackles against Auburn.

SECONDARY (87) Auburn probably had the worst offense the Vols have faced this season. The secondary did come up with a big INT (Dennis Rogan), and held Auburn to 6 of 18 third down conversions. Yet they gave up a touchdown pass and couldn't stop Auburn on third and long on the last possession of the game.

RUNNING BACKS (82) UT only had 33 rushes against an Auburn attack that stacked the box. Hard running by both Montario Hardesty who scored the Vols only TD and from Lennon Creer who shows great leg drive to go with outstanding speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (77) Not as many penalties which is an improvement but this is hardly the dominant, veteran unit many expected to see to this point.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6.7) Most would like to ignore it but the play of UT's receivers has dropped off dramatically from last year. (Do they miss Tropper Taylor?) No UT receiver caught more than one pass.

QUARTERBACK (Incomplete) That's right given Crompton missed on 15 of his 23 passes he gets an incomplete.

OVERALL (79) Production by the offense would have given Tennessee a victory, but as it is it's the most complete effort of the season despite the setback.

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