Peach Bowl Performance Is The Pits

One of the most disappointing seasons in Tennessee football history ended in the Vols worst bowl defeat ever, as the Maryland Terrapins thumped UT to the tune of 30-3 in the Peach Bowl.

For all practical purposes the game was decided on the first two possessions. Tennessee went three and out after receiving the opening kickoff and Maryland marched the ball 62 yards to grab a 7-0 lead. Since Tennessee had only overcome one seven-point deficit the entire season (against Rutgers), the dye was cast and it was red dye No. 2.

On the Vols third possession, Casey Clausen overthrew a screen pass that was intercepted by Maryland DB Curome Cox and returned 54 yards for a touchdown. That put the Vols behind by two touchdowns and the game was out of reach.

The 27-point margin of defeat was the greatest Tennessee has suffered in 43 post-season appearances, eclipsing a 25-0 setback against USC in the 1945 Rose Bowl, a 42-17 loss to Penn State in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl and another 42-17 beating administered by Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl. It's also the first time Tennessee has failed to score a touchdown in a bowl game since 1957, when the Vols beat Bear Bryant's Texas A&M squad 3-0.

The bottom line of the game was the same as the 2002 season — too many turnovers, too many penalties, too many mistakes and not enough execution. Simply stated: Tennessee's Peach Bowl performance was the pits.

It included all the earmarks of a team in disarray — wasted time outs, blown assignments, missed field goals, special teams breakdowns and a general lack of focus. The Vols were flagged eight times for 68 yards, including three personal foul penalties. Maryland had two penalties for 10 yards. Tennessee scored one time on three trips to the red zone, compared to Maryland's 3-of-3 inside the 20. Maryland's Nick Novak nailed field goals of 44 and 49 yards while UT's Alex Walls fluttered a 41-yard attempt wide left with seven seconds to play in the first half that would have made the score 17-6. Instead, the Terps went in with a two-touchdown advantage and a ton of momentum.

On their first possession of the second half, the Vols made their deepest penetration of the game before Derrick Tinsley fumbled on first down at the 8 and Maryland pounced on the ball to extinguish UT's best scoring opportunity. From there, Maryland drove the ball 62 yards to tack on another field goal. In the course of the inter-conference contest the Terps put together scoring drives of 62 yards, 68 yards, 67 yards, 66 and 68 in addition to returning a punt 79 yards to finish with a 25-yard fourth-quarter field goal. Conversely, Tennessee's longest drive covered 68 yards and ended in a field goal.

It was the second time this season the Vols have been held without a touchdown (Miami 26-3) and the lowest two-game point total Tennessee has had in any season since 1964 when the Vols were shutout three times. Undoubtedly, Maryland is a solid team but its three losses this season were by an average of 38 points per contest. Even Wofford scored eight points against the Terps.

Summed up: Watching the Peach Bowl loss was like viewing a low-light film of the 2002 season. There was the early defensive touchdown like Alabama scored in the first quarter of their victory over the Vols. There were the missed tackles of a scrambling McBrien that characterized Tennessee's defeat against Florida and Rex Grossman. There was the inability to generate any consistent offense that underscored the Miami loss and the fumble in the red zone by Tinsley like his turnover that nearly cost Tennessee the overtime win verses Arkansas. There was the inability to protect the quarterback as seen in defeats to Florida, Miami and Alabama. And there were the coverage breakdowns, missed kicks, deplorable penalties and wasted time outs that haunted Tennessee's entire 2002 campaign.

Also there was the failure to respond once the Vols fell behind along with what appeared to be a lack of fight, focus or intensity. When ESPN's cameras scanned Tennessee's sidelines there were mostly long faces and looks of bewilderment on the players faces, but one shot in the fourth quarter revealed starting guard Chavis Smith laughing it up with an unidentified teammate. This was about the same time Tennessee's faithful, which easily outnumbered its counterparts from Maryland, were headed toward the exits minus the hint of a smile.

After the game, Coach Fulmer praised UT fans for showing up in great numbers and providing a spirited road version of the Vol Walk as Tennessee entered the Georgia Dome. Fulmer also apologized for the performance of his team and accepted full responsibility for the lackluster effort. He was also grasping for explanations though offering no excuses.

"It didn't go according to how I thought we would play," he said in during an interview broadcast by the Vol Network. "{I take full responsibility as far as discipline, mistakes and penalties. I give Maryland full credit for playing a good game.

"It's my responsibility. These kids fought back to get eight wins. Did we practice them too hard? I don't know. Maryland seemed to have fresher legs."

Maryland also had a better game plan and made better adjustments throughout the contest. For example: Tennessee's first play (a naked waggle pass) was immediately sniffed out and stuffed for a nine-yard loss. Maryland's first drive picked up five first downs and ended in a touchdown. The TD was scored on a naked bootleg in which Tennessee linebacker Jason Mitchell was caught watching the game instead of maintaining containment and closing down the gap. Tennessee's two turnovers cost it at least 10 and possibly more points while penalties kept two Maryland scoring drives alive.

"The mistakes and penalties are our first maxim," Fulmer stated. "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win the game. It's my responsibility to get this thing turned around."

From Fulmer's standpoint that's about the best spin he could put his worst season. However the man who coined those maxims, General Robert R. Neyland, is likely spinning in his grave given the depths that Tennessee's program has fallen in the matter executing the most basic fundamentals of football.

As Fulmer finished his interview, the clock was striking midnight in the eastern time zone as the year and season came to an anticlimactic conclusion.

"I'm glad this one is over," Fulmer said in a low, strained voice. "It's been a struggle from the very beginning."

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