Air Force and the flexbone flummoxation: re-living the Tennessee Volunteers' 2006 season, part 2

Pre-game

Okay, so we’d clobbered Cal. David Cutcliffe was back and working his hoodoo. Erik Ainge had been reanimated, and Robert Meachem and Co. had finally lived up to expectations. Memories of the horrid 2005 season had been vanquished. Tennessee was back.

Oh, come on. You were thinking it, too, weren’t you? Most Vol fans thought that Tennessee should be ranked somewhere between 11th and 15th in the nation, and most of the talk about the upcoming game against the Air Force Falcons focused on whether it was appropriate to boo a service academy. College Football News was predicting a 27-point victory for the Vols.

Me, I was making ill-advised posts about Air Force’s flexbone triple option, joking that we’d gone undercover and discovered just what those options were:

The game

Oops. There was almost nothing pleasant about this game. Maybe the offense, yeah. But the defense? Not so much:

Larger version of the drive chart here.

Yikes. When Air Force drove in for a touchdown on its first series and we followed it up with a field goal, most of the folks on Rocky Top were likely thinking the same thing: no big deal. Just a mild hangover from last week’s party. We’ll get it rollin’.

And we did. Sort of. On offense anyway. Ainge threw a touchdown pass to Meachem on the next series to tie the score at 10 and threw another to Jayson Swain on the following series to go ahead 17-10. Tennessee had seven total possessions and scored on all but two: one, which ended with what appeared at the time to be an inconsequential interception, and one when time mercifully ran out with us dazed and blabbering in the corner of a padded room.

The problem was, we simply could not stop the flexbone. After their first touchdown, the Falcons' second drive ended with a field goal, and their third actually ended with one of only two punts for either team the entire game.

It was all downhill from there. The Vols opened the second half with a touchdown, extending their lead to 24-17, but Air Force quarterback Shawn Carney kept pace by leading the Falcons to the end zone on their first series of the second half. Ainge then hit Meachem for another TD, and Tennessee appeared to have the game in hand with a 31-17 lead. The Falcons punted on their next series.

About this time, I did something I almost never do: I left early. My daughter wanted to go home because she was feeling poorly, and anyway, we were comfortably ahead.

Well, call it an omen. A harbinger. Call it something sinister, anyway, because pain for all was rounding the bend.

Ainge threw an interception on the next drive, and Air Force drove the field for a touchdown, bringing themselves to within seven points. They then recovered an onside kick and found themselves with momentum, the ball at midfield, and 2:36 on the clock. Two plays later, disaster struck.

On third and seven, Carney threw a pass to Justin Handley who proceeded to run full speed down the sideline directly at cornerback Inky Johnson. The two collided, and Inky went limp before he hit the ground. After several long, scary minutes, he was immobilized and carted off the field. We’d all seen stuff like this before. As frightening as it is, the story usually ends with a PA announcement later in the game that the player is all right and the extra attention was merely precautionary.

Not this time. We wouldn’t know the full story for many months, but Inky essentially lost the use of his right arm on that play. He had emergency surgery to repair blood vessels in his torn arm either that night or the next morning, and he had follow up reconstructive surgery several months later at the Mayo Clinic. To this day, he has almost no movement in that arm.

But we didn’t know that at the time, and the game of course continued. Three plays later, Air Force was again in the end zone. They were now behind by one point with 1:35 left on the game clock. They could have kicked the extra point and gone to overtime, but instead, they elected to go for two and the win. After all, we hadn’t been able to stop them all night.

This time, they didn’t even get close. Xavier Mitchell, heeding the urgent instructions of defensive coordinator John Chavis, lined up wide, and when the ball was snapped, he beat his defender and collared the ball carrier in dramatic fashion behind the line of scrimmage. To me, it was the play of the season.

You might forget that the game wasn’t over even then. Air Force tried another onside kick, and recovered it, again, but had the play wiped out due to an offsides penalty. They tried one more time, and that’s when we turned into Tom Hanks, gaining possession of the Wilson and clutching it like it was our only friend in the world.

Post-game

I spent the next day whimpering in the ER with a kidney stone and having my credit card stolen by the billing clerk while I was doped up on Demerol. Fortunately, Aerobab was here to do the immediate post-game. We had escaped by the skin of our teeth, but it was a costly victory. As I later told CW at Rakes of Mallow, we were absolutely flummoxed by the flexbone:

[The drive chart] pretty much tells the story, except that I need to clarify one thing: both teams' defensive units did in fact take the field and try to prevent the other team from scoring.  Really.

Having seen Tennessee thump Cal the week before, Vol fans were not shocked that Erik Ainge went 24 of 29 for 333 yards and three TDs.  We were absolutely stunned, however, that John Chavis' defense, which finished the prior season as the No. 2 rushing defense in the country, looked absolutely helpless against the Air Force Flexbone Option.

Watching the game at the stadium was like trying to win a shell game; it was simply impossible to tell which Air Force player had the ball.  Until the ball carrier was dragging a linebacker eight yards down the field, it was pure guess work.  Wild speculation.  Conjecture at its finest.

Not only are the Falcons wildly deceptive, they are tough.  They knocked Arian Foster and Ramone Foster out for the game, Justin Harrell out for the season (he actually played one more game with one good bicep against Florida), and Inky Johnson out for the rest of his life.  If not for Xavier Mitchell's tackle for a loss on the Falcons' two-point-conversion-for-the-win gamble, we would have been heading to overtime.

In the polls, Tennessee fell only from 11th to 13th, but the contrast between the Cal clobbering and the flexbone flummoxing scared many fans to tears. As Brian at mgoblog said it: "Holy bipolar, batman!"

Which Tennessee team would show up against Florida the following week?
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