Auburn 26 Tennessee 22
Attendance (Neyland Stadium): 102,941
Stuck in a Rut?
When I wrote after last week’s game against Ohio that we’re watching a work in progress (the Tennessee football program that is – not this blog), I did so with the hope that progress was being made, slowly, step by step. While I think that Saturday’s performance against Auburn did contain some measure of progress in some aspects (e.g., the offense certainly had a bit more spark for longer stretches than that witnessed against UCLA), my prevailing mood is that we’re stuck in a rut.
A college football season is a pretty long affair. In the SEC, 14 games if you’re good enough. But it is also the nature of football – a once a week affair for 3 to 4 months – that visible progress is not always a given, even if a team is actually improving. That’s because other teams are progressing as well, and maybe progressing faster than you are. Or more simply, there just isn’t enough time, especially if you are relying on substandard quality in key positions.
That certainly seems to be the case when looking at the Vols and Auburn. Gus Malzahn, the Auburn Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach, has infused an innovative and fearless approach to his squad. Last season, under the stewardship of Tommy Tubberville, Auburn had become mired in a sea of lethargy, and the Vols under Philip Fulmer deconstructed into a fractious, bitter weed. Last year’s game between Auburn and Tennessee down in Alabama showed it all.
But with Mr. Malzahn’s appearance on the Plains of Auburn after spending two seasons as offensive coach at the University of Tulsa, who’s offense was ranked number one and two in the nation in 2007 and 2008, the Tiger offense has transformed essentially the same personnel into an offensive squad that can make plays happen.
Sure, we can get picky with the Tigers’ relative failure to cash in once in the red zone Saturday night. But that would denigrate Auburn’s situation with over-analysis. The War Eagle offensive attack is interesting, full of motion, misdirection, and veiling plays within a plethora of multiple sets. The perfect offense for Tennessee’s highly talented defense. As Vol Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin said earlier this week, watching and trying to defend Auburn’s offense is like trying to read a book while someone constantly waves their hand back and forth between the pages and your eyes.
To state it plainly with my perspective, watching Auburn on offense reminds me of why I love college football – why I prefer it over the professional game. It’s the motion, the reverses, the scampering nature of the whole picture. The unpredictableness. When it’s done well, within an entertaining structure and innovative scheme, it’s beautiful to watch.
On the other hand, with the exception of witnessing Montario Hardesty practically will himself to nearly 100 yards rushing every Saturday, watching the Tennessee offense is mostly tedious, frustrating, and brings a sense of dread – impending misfortune and self-inflicted wounds. Self-flagellation is not my idea of a good time (I’m just not into that sort of thing).
Auburn make plays.
Tennessee does not.
Too simple? Maybe. But watch a tape of Saturday’s game, if you can stand it. It’s what comes through the pixels of your HDTV screen. The Vols with the ball are not consistent enough to beat anybody beyond the quality of Western Kentucky, Ohio, and probably Memphis and Kentucky. Wearing the orange pants at home simply isn’t going to do it.
So if Auburn could change so drastically with the same basic offensive personnel as last year, why not Tennessee? Either (a) Auburn’s new sideline leadership is far superior to Tennessee’s, or (b) the Tigers’ playmakers are better. I can’t judge the coaches’ relative abilities. However I think I know a bad QB when I see one. His receivers are not the best thing since the invention of peanut butter either. But I’m sorry to Jonathan, his friends, and his family – Jonathan Crompton is not good enough to play at this level. He simply cannot execute on gameday for whatever reason. The poorly thrown balls to open receivers on multiple occasions Saturday night just reminded me of the simple fact that he has no upside potential against SEC competition. None. Coach him all you want. But not godalmighty, or even Gus Malzahn for that matter, could make Crompton into what Tennessee needs to be a winning team this season.
I don’t think Kiffin will make the change for this coming game against the Georgia Bulldogs. Whether he will later in the season is anybody’s guess. When you’re stuck in a rut, you can either just try to slog your way out or leave the vehicle in the mud and walk back to the house and get your other one.
At this point, what have we got to lose by going to Nick Stephens?
The Vol’s open with missed opportunities and poor execution.
After David Oku makes a fine return out of his own end zone up the middle to the Vol 35 on the opening KO, Tennessee opens with a play that you knew had been discussed at length in the coaches’ war room – freshman Nu’Keese Richardson takes the snap out of the Wildcat Formation and runs for 41 yards deep into Tiger territory. Just like that, advantage Tennessee. And perhaps it could be just in a minute or two that the Vols have a quick touchdown lead. But Tennessee quickly saw two things that would recur throughout the evening – badly thrown and dropped passes. On 2nd and 8 from the Auburn 22, QB Jonathan Crompton overthrows his receiver in the middle, and on 3rd down Gerald Jones drops a pass.
So, we’ll have to settle for three. Except that PK Daniel Lincoln smothers the kick, sending the ball low and left of the uprights.
Big opportunity lost. Dread rears his ugly head.
Auburn opens their offense brightly, showing the Vols what was in store for the rest of the first half – mixed sets, motion, and misdirection plays. A wide open Onterio McCalebb takes a pass in the left flat for 24 yards. And on the following play at midfield, TE Travante Stallworth lines up just behind the RG. Well, he wasn’t exactly lined up – he was crouching down looking like he was trying to hide from his mama. He takes the handoff from QB Chris Todd and runs left for 11 yards and another first down. Then on 2nd down, Todd hits his receiver down the right sideline to the Vol 20 – the Tennessee secondary are missing coverage due to Auburn’s unorthodox looks – but the play is called back due to a chop-block. Even though the Tigers run Ben Tate for 10 yards and pass to Ben Tate for 12 yards, it isn’t enough after the penalty’s 2nd and 29 consequence. Opportunity lost by the other side. Thanks for small favors.
So the Vols get the ball back on a punt. But after Crompton nearly throws an interception on 2nd and 8, Tennessee has to give the ball right back to the Tigers, and they give them good field position as Chad Cunningham shanks/squibs/screws up his punt and lets Auburn start at their own 44.
More motion and misdirection came right away. Auburn open with a reverse pass to the right for a 17 yard gain, Ben Tait runs it up the middle for 9 after a Tiger timeout, and gets 2 more on another run, and War Eagle are in business at the Tennessee 29. After the teams trade penalties and Auburn nearly get it to the goal line (except for the catch is out of bounds), QB Chris Todd while under an intense pass rush lobs the ball to TE Tommy Trott for a 12 yard gain on 3rd and 10. But the Tigers couldn’t cash in within the red zone, a trait that would reoccur for our friends from the plains, and settle for a Wes Byrum 29 yard FG to take the lead. Auburn 3 Tennessee 0.
A strange Auburn drive in that after two consecutive first downs, their offense got out of a flow and became bogged down, taking a lot of time for each play slowing the pace of the game dramatically.
But Tennessee give it right back to the Tigers when on the first play from scrimmage at the Vol 31, Crompton fumbles the snap, Brandon Warren mistakenly tries to pick the ball up rather than falling on it, and LB Josh Bynes recovers the ball for Auburn at the Tennessee 26. Luckily, Auburn do nothing on 3 downs and Wes Byrum kicks another FG, this time a 43 yarder to extend the Tiger lead by a little bit. Auburn 6 Tennessee 0.
Should’a, would’a, could’a been AUB 14 TENN 7. But, a 6 point lead is pretty much the same as a 7 point lead.
Oku nearly gets free for a big gain on the KO return only to be brought down by a hand on one of his feet at his own 26. After freshman RB Bryce Brown gets 7 up the middle, redshirt freshman OL Aaron Douglas is flagged for a false start, and the Vols end up punting with no first down. The first audible boo birds are heard on 3rd down when Crompton has to get rid of the pill while under good Tiger pressure – nothing terribly wrong with that decision, but he makes it look like he tries to hit RB Oku in the butt with the throwaway. With time whittling away in the opening quarter, which seems like an eternity, Auburn can’t make a first down either thanks to a good rush by Vol DL Dan Williams and a near-interception by Eric Berry.
Then the hard facts are revealed once again for all to see. On the next series, Crompton throws two consecutive passes, each behind their intended open receivers. The Vols punt it away after four consecutive possessions without a first down.
The game looks like a lost cause early, until the Vols finally make a long gain and leave us (unreasonable) hope.
Auburn open the second quarter with a fine pass play to their TE Jay Wisner for a first down. But on the next series, Eric Berry lays the wood on RB Mario Fannin, and the Tigers deliver a punt into the Vol endzone. The Vols follow by finally making a first down, their first since the opening possession of the game, when Hardesty almost breaks his run to the promised land. He still gets 22. However, the Tiger DL gets busy by stopping Brown and Hardesty on short yardage, and once again the Vol offense is ineffective.
Now it’s time for the Plainsmen to shine. After an opening first down, Vol DL Dan Williams nearly sacks Tiger QB Chris Todd who adeptly throws the ball away. And the next play sees another excellent Vol pass rush, but Sophomore RB Eric Smith makes a nifty improv of his route to come back toward his scrambling QB to get space for a big reception to keep the drive alive with a 17 yard gain to the Vol 35.
Next it’s the big fella’s turn to dominate. Auburn’s senior RB Ben Tait gets the handoff three consecutive times and runs for 15, 9, and 10 yards to put the Tigers ahead with enough of a display of power to make the Vol Nation think this one just might be over, even with about 8 minutes left in the second half. Auburn 13 Tennessee 0.
Then it’s time for a little black comedy from the Vol offense. After all, there is a full moon on this crystal clear night. Hardesty on 2nd and 10 gets 12 around the end, but is stifled on his next carry leaving a 2nd and 11 near midfield. Enter Vol senior WR Quintin Hancock, who promptly drops a perfectly thrown Crompton pass along the right sideline for what would have been a big gain. And on a third down route, Hancock makes a left turn toward the middle after about four steps. Crompton under pressure throws what seems to be a bit early and hits Hancock squarely in his left earhole! The look on Lane Kiffin’s face was priceless – it was one of utter disbelief and confusion, almost questioning the situation. “WTF was that?” Who knows!?!?! By this time, it is total frustration in Neyland Stadium on the verge of boiling.
Auburn now look like they are going to rub Tennessee’s nose in their own mess. On 3rd and 2 from their own 20, Chris Todd is pressured again by the Vol line and once again makes a play by somehow finding WR Darvin Adams down the middle for a first down. It’s just Auburn’s night to make plays. And once again, on 2nd and 7, Chris Todd under intense pressure finds RB Eric Smith for an 11 yard gain and another first down.
Now the Tigers turn to the run, and after Ben Tait rips a 20 yard run around left end, Auburn have the ball deep in Tennessee territory, threatening to end the evening right here. Tennessee calls a time out just to stop the impending bleeding – the Vol defense looks like it’s lost its breath. But after an incomplete pass in the endzone, Auburn royally screw up the option play and RB Onterio McCalebb recovers the Tiger fumble forcing a 37 yard FG attempt. Auburn PK Wes Byrum pushes his kick wide right for his first missed FG attempt in 5 games, and the Vols somehow find themselves fortunate to still be hanging around in this one and the Auburn squad have to be kicking themselves for not stepping on the Vol throats.
Then all of a sudden, Tennessee embark on an up-tempo drive. Starting on their own 29 with 1:30 left in the half, Crompton has Denarius Moore wide open over the middle only to throw the ball behind his receiver once again. But after a 14 yard pass play to Gerald Jones and a dropped pass by Denarius Moore, Crompton hits TE Luke Stocker over the middle for a 40 yard gain and the Vols are deep in the Auburn red zone. Now the Vols turn to the run. Hardesty goes up the middle twice: first for 11, then from the 1. The officials take their time to see if he had crossed the goal line. Indeed he did. But Auburn blocks the extra point attempt and for a moment look like they might run it all the way back for a TD. But no. And the half ends shortly after Tennessee does a squibb kick to make a return more difficult. Auburn 13 Tennessee 6.
At the half, Auburn led all statistical categories: rushing yards (127 to 114), passing (13-23/143 to 4-16/63), first downs (15 to 7), and 3rd down efficiency (3/9 to 1/7). The Tigers’ QB Chris Todd has been terrific, especially when under pressure, and the Auburn offense is deceptive and innovative with different sets and lots of motion and misdirection. Tennessee’s offense on the other hand is mostly inept and mistake prone (badly thrown balls to open receivers and dropped passes delivered on target) and lucky to be only 7 points down when easily the halftime score could be 20-0.
The Tigers fend off Tennessee who make it mildly interesting down the stretch.
Auburn get good field position on the kickoff – a return to the 39 sets them up for a promising series. But after Tennessee almost picks off a tipped pass on 3rd and 4, the Tigers punt it to the Vols who on the first play resume the comedy of errors with Crompton tripping on his center’s foot as he goes back in the pocket. That leads to another Tennessee punt and Auburn again start a drive in good position from their own 44. On 2nd down, RB Mario Fannin takes a pitch on a reverse and runs left for 32 yards immediately followed by Ben Tait’s 15 yard run, and just like that, Auburn has the ball 1st and goal at the Vol 5. Tennessee can’t recover a Ben Tait fumble at the 2 yard line, but Auburn again can’t get the ball into the end zone and settle for a 19 yard FG by Wes Byrum. Auburn 16 Tennessee 6.
The rest of the 3rd quarter settles into a punt-fest with Tennessee not scoring from two possessions sandwiching a stalled Auburn series. The second Tennessee series was noteworthy only because Crompton misses two open receivers: he throws way wide on the first play and then after converting a 4th and 1 at the Vol 29 with a nice play-action pass to TE Stocker, Crompton badly throws behind his receiver on 3rd and 8, forcing yet another Volunteer punt.
The Vols nearly get some good fortune. On a 2nd and 8 at the Tiger 28, Vol freshman DT Montori Hughes appears to have intercepted a Tiger pass only to have it overturned by a video review that clearly showed the ball touching the turf on Hughes’ catch. And what an unfortunate call reversal that turns out to be for Tennessee. On the very next play, 3rd and 8, Onterio McCalebb makes a terrific 26 yard run after catching a short pass and immediately reversing direction to end the 3rd quarter. Then in lightening-speed fashion, Auburn advance straight down the field. Chris Todd finds WR Darvin Adams down the middle for 15, Ben Tate runs right for 5, Mario Fannin takes a Chris Todd down the left side for a 17 yard gain, and WR Terrell Zachary takes advantage of two missed tackles on a 10-yard screen pass play for the Tiger TD. The extra point is good, and it’s all over but the crying. Auburn 23 Tennessee 6.
Except that the Vols just don’t know how to quit. Starting at their own 38, Tennessee has to convert on a 4th and 7, which they do when Gerald Jones barely hangs on to a Crompton pass, and two plays later, Tennessee’s Man of the Offense, senior Montario Hardesty collects a screen pass on the left and makes a very nice 32 yard run all the way into the War Eagle end zone. And just in a couple of moments, the Vols are seemingly back in the contest. Auburn 23 Tennessee 13.
Now it’s time for the Vol defense to shine. Tired, they dig deep and stop the Tigers on the first series, and just like that the Vols have the ball again, starting on their own 19 with 9:15 to go and plenty of time for two scores and a couple of defensive stops. But the Vol drive gets a bit labour intensive. The Big Orange convert on two consecutive 3rd down conversions, and then on 4th and 6 on the Auburn 40, Crompton throws a high floater to the left where WR Quintin Hancock makes a very fine grab for 18 yards to save the drive and Vol chances. Then a 9 yard gain followed by an 8 yard gain and the Vols all of a sudden have the ball at the Auburn 5 first and goal. But on second down, Crompton doesn’t see his TE wide open along the back of the end zone, and Tennessee ultimately have to settle for a 26 yard FG. Auburn 23 Tennessee 16.
Now the Vols have to make a quick defensive stop and follow with a TD with only 4:09 left. And Auburn does exactly what the Vols can’t afford to let happen. Ontario McCalebb takes the short kickoff (can’t we get the ball a bit further back than this?) and scampers for 51 yards to the Tennessee 39.
But the defense stays strong, or so it seemed for a few seconds. The Vol front line has Ben Tait dead to rights for a 4 yard loss only to see the big RB escape and turn an important loss into a 9 yard gain. Two Tiger first downs later, interspersed with three Vol timeouts and one Auburn time out, Tennessee has one hope left. Auburn have the ball at the Vol 23 with 3rd and 3. But as the Auburn Tigers seemingly did all night long, they make a play. Chris Todd throws a screen pass to RB Eric Smith to the right who runs like fire for 17 yards to the Vol 5 and that is pretty much it. Amazingly, the Tigers can’t get it in the endzone again, but they don’t seem bothered by that. They let Wes Byrum kick another FG, this time 22 yards long, and with 39 seconds left, the torture is over. Auburn 26 Tennessee 16.
With the middle of the field full of empty space as Auburn defenders are spread wide and deep (or maybe they were on the bench. I don’t know), Crompton completes passes of 7, 25, and 32 yards and the Vols score on a strike to Denarius Moore with no time left on the game clock, eliminating an extra point attempt. Auburn 26 Tennessee 22.
The Final Word
The final score flatters Tennessee who were not worthy of being within 4 points of Auburn at the end of this game. I think I’ll just go and shoot myself in the head now, which would be less painful than taking a Crompton pass in the left earhole a la Quintin Hancock. The thought of hosting Georgia next week (not that they are better than Auburn) gives me that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
What They’re Saying
- Austin Ward of GoVolsXtra.com writes how the Vols’ special teams are hurting our chances. Indeed.
- John Adams of GoVolsXtra,com has a little fun with the notion that Tennessee’s offense is vastly improved in their national ranking over last year. I’m not laughing.
Dave Hooker of GoVolsXtra.com postulates how Crompton performs better in a hurry-up offensive scheme. I’m not really interested in hearing about how we can devise something new for Crompton to try next week. I’m ready for Stephens. Now.
- Hooper over at Rocky Top Talk says that the Vols “let one slip” to Auburn. One what? It’s more like we tripped over our own two feet while carrying 50 glasses of champaign into a large banquet room with foreign dignitaries present, and broke our back in the process. But to be totally fair to the Tigers, it was like the dignitaries were constantly moving from table to table, always keeping the champaign servers guessing where the next glass was due to be served.
- Will at the same Rocky Top Talk reminds us all that we haven’t won a big game in quite a while. And he gives us some really good observations and opinions in the process.
- Mr. War Blog Eagle over at the War Eagle Reader notes that with Furman still remaining on the Tigers’ schedule, Auburn has clinched themsevles a bowl berth. Wonderful. Win one game on the road, and five at home against nobody, and look what you get nowdays. BFD. [and I’m being harsh – I like that blog. I’m just pissed and licking my wounds. You’ll have to forgive me.]
- The same Auburner at the same blog give a very spot-on observation: “Mantario Hardesty is a man’s man, man. Too bad for him he plays alongside the worst passing game this side of the service academies.” Bang, man. And, a very good article on the game from a War Eagle Perspective.
- Acid Reign over at the blog Track Em Tigers writes that “Tennessee came up on the short end of luck, repeatedly. The newspaper folks in Birmingham believe that despite the final score, the game wasn’t even close. I disagree.” Well, there is something to say for being gracious in victory, but I think that’s bending over just a bit too far. Thanks anyway.
- Will Collier over at From The Bleachers blog doubts that Lane Kiffin (he calls him “Laney” and a punk) will ever coach the Vols against Auburn again. And adds that “there aren’t many confidence-builders better than going into a hundred-thousand-plus hostile stadium and eventually running all those hollering hillbillies off.” A million laughs. But not insightful. At least he got one thing right when he wrote “[n]either Auburn nor Tennessee folks think much of one another; having spent the better part of fifty years ruining each others’ seasons back in the days when the Tigers and Vols were annual early-season opponents…”
- The Knoxville News-Sentinel staff give the following grades for the Tennessee vs Auburn Report Card: Quarterback (C-); Running Backs (B); Receivers (F); Offensive Line (B); Defensive Line (C+); Linebackers (B-); Secondary (B); Special Teams (D); Coaching Staff (C-). The overall grade? D+. Bingo. Although I think the grade for the receivers was harsh. How about D-?
- Lane Kiffin has the quote of the week in assessing the Vols’ performance. “We don’t have to make miraculous plays – just normal plays.” I think that sums it all up, don’t you?
0:38 Montario Hardesty runs 1 yard up the middle for a TD. GIVE HIM SIX! TOUCHDOWN BIG ORANGE!!! Daniel Lincoln‘s extra point attempt is blocked. AUB 13 TENN 6.The TD capped a 7 play, 71 yard drive lasting 1:02.
11:48 Montario Hardesty catches a screen pass to left and runs 32 yards for a TD. GIVE HIM SIX! TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE! Daniel Lincoln‘s extra point is GOOOOOOD! AUB 23 TENN 13. The TD capped a 7 play, 62 yard drive lasting 1:57.
0:00 Denarius Moore catches a 32-yard Jonathan Crompton pass in the end zone for a TD. GIVE HIM SIX! TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE! An extra point was not attempted as the game clock was at 0:00. AUB 26 TENN 22. The TD capped a 5 play, 79 yard drive lasting 0:34.