No wonder. Tennesee managed a paltry 69 rushing yards and 225 total yards. The Vols converted on just 3 of 13 third-down plays. They made just nine first downs and coughed up two fumbles, losing both.
"Offensively, we made some steps in the right direction," Fullmer said, "but we still are not as efficient as we need to be, certainly on third down. It seems like everything we do is really hard for us."
The Vols' offensive futility enabled the visiting Huskies to keep the ball 33 minutes and 11 seconds to UT's 26:49. Tennessee also missed a 32-yard field goal and had a 36-yarder go through only after ricocheting off the left upright.
Bottom line: Saturday night's level of play will not be sufficient against upcoming SEC foes Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. It was barely sufficient against Northern Illinois.
The major culprit was the offensive line. It routinely failed to get any push in short-yardage situations and surrendered three sacks – just one shy of the 2007 total for 14 games. One of Saturday night's sacks resulted in a fumble that set up an NIU field goal; another cost Tennessee a field goal of its own.
The blocking front was especially inept on the Vols' final possession of the game. After taking over on downs at the NIU 27-yard line with 2:34 to play, the Vols needed only to make one first down to seal the deal.
After a nine-yard gain on first down by Montario Hardesty, however, he was stopped for no gain on second down, a one-yard loss on third down and a two-yard loss on fourth down. This gave the Huskies the ball at their 21-yard line with 14 seconds left – time enough for an ill-fated hook-and-lateral play that featured a half-dozen laterals.
"That push at the end was very disappointing," Fulmer said. "That was extremely disappointing that we didn't make that first down to finish the game without any further drama."
The principal bright spot for Tennessee, now 2-3, was the play of sophomore Nick Stephens. Starting his first game at quarterback, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 156 yards. His first pass of the second half was a 43-yard completion to Gerald Jones that set up a 34-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal for a 6-3 lead. Stephens opened Tennessee's next possession with a 52-yard touchdown strike to Denarius Moore that widened the gap to 13-3.
"As everybody in the stadium that was pulling for Tennessee, I was very excited about the two big plays we made," Fulmer said, calling the TD pass "a great play, a great throw, an outstanding call and something for us to build on."
Those two big plays accounted for 95 of Tennessee's 225 total yards. The Vols did very little else all game. Fortunately for the home team, the Big Orange defense allowed just 198 total yards and Mike Salerno field goals of 25, 24 and 25 yards.
The game's defining moment came shortly after NIU's Larry English hit Stephens as he was trying to pass, forcing a third-quarter fumble the Huskies recovered at the Vol 9-yard line. Down 13-6 at the time, NIU appeared likely to tie the score. But Tennessee's defense, aided considerably by delay and sideline interference penalties against NIU, forced the visitors to settle for a 25-yard field goal.
"The defense has played at a very high level this year," Fulmer said. "Our defense has done a nice job for the most part all year."
Because Tennessee's offense has been so unproductive this fall, Vol defenders have had to play an awful lot of snaps throughout the first five games.
"We try to play a lot of people on the front and at linebacker," Fulmer said. "We need to rest (safeties Demetrice) Morley and (Eric) Berry some if we can. But everywhere else we can rest people."
The Vols also were without the services of injured wide receiver Lucas Taylor.
"We're trying to get them well and ready (for Game 6 at Georgia)," Fulmer said of Wilson and Taylor. "Not taking anything for granted, but we felt like that was what we had to do."
Although Tennessee fans didn't take NIU for granted, they expected the homestanding Vols to beat the Huskies (2-3) comfortably. Instead, Tennessee had to scratch and claw to win by four points.
Afterward, Vol supporters filed from Neyland Stadium thankful for the victory but disappointed in the performance. Some were smiling; some were frowning.
No one was laughing.