Nick Stephens stepped into the breach Saturday and performed well in his first start and his only significant college playing stint. He played a sound game and stayed within himself. He displayed a strong, accurate arm and had a physical component outside the pocket. He was nervous, as any player in his situation would be, but he kept his emotions in check and exhibited a stable presence in the pocket.
He produced the game's only touchdown on a pro-caliber throw to Denarius Moore. He did fumble on an attempted pass from UT's 9 yard-line as the ball appeared to get away from him as he was loaded to launch and pressure was bearing down. He had to burn a couple of time outs and lost 26 yards on sacks and runs.
Overall Stephens was a success in his debut but Tennessee still only scored 13 points against a team that isn't even mighty by MAC standards. On the other hand Auburn has a standout defense put together by one of the game's top coordinators Will Muschamp before he left for the same position at Texas. What he left behind was a defense that is bigger, faster, stronger, deeper and tougher than the Huskies gritty D. Plus there's a considerable difference in playing at Neyland Stadium vs. Jordan-Hare Stadium. Scoring 12 against the Tigers at Auburn has to be better than scoring 13 against Northern Illinois in Knoxville.
In a bit of analytical irony the better you feel about Stephens' game the more you have to be concerned about UT's offense. Otherwise it's pretty hard to explain how a team that only needed better play from its signal caller to be productive would gain only 225 yards and scored 13 points against a low level MAC team at home. In fact taking Crompton, who had become the fans favorite scapegoat, out of the equation simply exposes other problems that have existed all along.
Problems with pass protection are the same, problems with receivers getting separation are essentially unchanged. The lack of a consistent running game stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Neither did the turnovers around the goal line change as the Vols lost two fumbles. Scoring one touchdown in four quarters was the same as the Vols did against Florida and Auburn. The only significant change was the quality of the opponent.
The Vols converted only 3 of 13 third down opportunities and had an embarrassing 225 yards total offense and nine first downs at home and against a team that lost to Toledo last year 70-21, a week after losing to Wisconsin 45-3. NIU allowed an average of 30.8 points in 2007 against a schedule that was loaded with MAC opponents.
By the way, all 11 of the Huskies defensive starters returned this season so though a year older they're only marginally better. Minnesota, which went 1-11 in 2007, scored 31 points and amassed 425 yards against NIU in the season opener. The Gophers sliced up the Huskies secondary to to the tune of 24-of-37 passing and 298 yards, no interceptions and a TD. MAC opponent Western Michigan scored 29 in a game two loss for the Huskies last month in which it rushed for 198 yards in 32 carries and completed 21 of 30 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterbacks have registered an efficiency rating of 113.62. in the first five games vs. NIU. The Vols rushed for 69 yards in 32 carries against the Huskies.
If you want to contrast Northern Illinois as an opponent consider that it averages 20,000 for home games and you get some insight just how advantaged the Vols were for this intersectional contest. If not for being forced to go with their third string quarterback the Huskies may have scored an upset against an SEC giant.
Some say any win is a good win and I'm inclined to agreed, but beating NIU in a 13-9 snore-fest raises as many questions as it answers.
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.
SECONDARY (92) Vols only allowed 118 yards through the air. Throw in Eric Berry's interception and 48 yard return and that number drops to 70. DEFENSIVE LINE (91) Vols were credited with four sacks and held Huskies to 76 rushing yards. The defensive ends showed some speed and depth.
QUARTERBACK (84) It's easy to overstate Stephens play because of the opponent but he did provide the winning margin in his first start and that's noteworthy.
RECEIVERS (77) Not getting consistent separation. Moore's TD catch was the game highlight.
SPECIAL TEAMS (75) UT didn't do much with limited returns. Daniel Lincoln hit two field goals but also missed a chip shot that would have given the Vols a seven-point lead.
OFFENSIVE LINE (69) This group has allowed as many sacks (5) in the last two games as it did in 14 games in 2007. Only a 2.2 yard average gain on the ground.
RUNNING BACKS (66) Outside of Arian Foster's 75 yards in 18 carries the remaining Vol ball carriers had minus four yards in 14 carries. DEFENSE (91) Another solid effort but true test will come in Athens Saturday. OFFENSE (74) A long way to go not to be the worst UT offense in a long time. OVERALL (82) Only half a game won't get the job done in the SEC.