With the Vols facing a fourth-and-one at their own 45-yard line in the second quarter of Saturday night's game against Northern Illinois, many of the 80,000 or so fans in attendance assumed Fulmer would go for the first down. After all, that would make a statement to the visiting underdogs: "We're bigger and stronger, and you can't stop us."
That's what Steve Spurrier would do. That's what Urban Meyer would do. That's what Nick Saban would do. And that's certainly what Les Miles would do. Heck, LSU's unpredictable head man probably would fake a dive play and have his quarterback throw for the end zone.
Fulmer, however, is not Spurrier, Meyer, Saban or Miles. Turning a deaf ear to the thousands screaming "Go for it!" the Vol coach sent in punter Chad Cunningham. Many fans, upset by the conservative move, booed the decision.
The paying customers may have been annoyed by the decision but they should not have been surprised by it. Fulmer will take a chance when he's trailing by 7 in the final minutes of the fourth quarter; he will not take a chance when he's trailing by 3 in the opening minutes of the second quarter ... even when the opponent is Northern Illinois.
The message the Vol coach sent to his team was: "I don't trust that you can execute well enough to get one yard in a clutch situation on your home field against a nondescript opponent." Perhaps he was right. The Vols are no offensive juggernaut, so maybe they would've botched the play and turned the ball over on downs. We'll never know, of course.
But what about the other side of the coin? What if Fulmer had sent in a fourth-down play instead of his punter? With one yard to be gained, the odds were good that Tennessee would've picked up the first down. The Vols also might have picked up some confidence, picked up some momentum, picked up the fan base and eventually picked up seven points, turning a 0-3 deficit into a 7-3 lead. That might have been the boost the Big Orange needed to take control of the game and win convincingly, instead of 13-9.
But Fulmer, already feeling some heat due to his team's 1-3 start, was not inclined to take any risks Saturday night ... even against a foe the caliber of Northern Illinois.
How else do you explain the non-use of sophomore tailback Lennon Creer? Creer drew rave reviews from running backs coach Stan Drayton and offensive coordinator Dave Clawson following a superior performance at Auburn one week earlier. Drayton went so far as to guarantee that Creer's big-play potential would earn him a beefier role in the weeks ahead. Instead, the ball-toting responsibilities Saturday night were the exclusive domain of senior Arian Foster and junior Montario Hardesty. Creer's only touches came on three kickoff returns.
And how else do you explain Tennessee's bizarre play selection in the fourth quarter?
After rushing for just 23 yards in the game's first three quarters, Tennessee opened its first possession of the final period with a toss sweep that Foster turned into a 10-yard gain. He ran the play again three snaps later and gained 7 yards. He ran it again two snaps later and gained 11 yards to the NIU 9-yard line.
With blockers leading him and a head of steam propelling him, the 225-pound Foster appeared unstoppable on the toss sweep. Once Tennessee got to the 9-yard line, however, the toss sweep was tossed onto the scrap heap. Foster was stopped in his tracks on a run between the tackles. Hardesty got 5 yards on second down but Nick Stephens was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down. Tennessee's ensuing field goal was missed, leaving the Vols clinging to a scant 13-9 lead.
When the UT offense got the ball back moments later, you figured the Vols would toss-sweep the Huskies to death. Instead, Tennessee ran Foster off tackle for 3, saw Stephens gain 2 yards on a scramble and then throw an incompletion.
After NIU surrendered the ball on downs, you KNEW Tennessee would run out the clock with toss sweeps. Instead, the Vols ran Hardesty up the gut four consecutive times, then gave the ball up on downs themselves.
The obvious question: With Northern Illinois clearly unable to stop the toss sweep, why did Tennessee abandon the play?
"When you've got a lead and the other team's not doing very much," Fulmer replied, "you want to be real careful about tossing the ball.
"A couple of times, where you're trying to finish games, it's happened to me where it (ball) hits the fullback's hand or butt as he's going out there or the tailback doesn't quite look it (toss) in and kicks it around. We were trying to be really safe."
The Vols certainly succeeded on that count. Offensively, they weren't creative or productive Saturday night. There was no disputing, however, that they were really safe.
Ultimately, the "Better safe than sorry" philosophy worked against an opponent the caliber of Northern Illinois. With Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky upcoming, however, the Vols might be wise to throw caution to the wind ... along with Saturday night's gameplan.