A final look back at the 2007 season. Up today: The Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
The trip out to Cal had been like a total righteous bummer, dude, you know, except for the nekkid folks in the trees surrounded by hastily-erected fencing to protect them from Vol fans and their travel chainsaws. Vol fans were taking the defeat in stride, tracing the question of why no one ever eats eagles back to an edict from God, marveling at Trooper Taylor’s willingness to chest bump any old stranger, and clapping Old Smokey on the shoulder for the epic 52-syllable Hail Mary Haiku he heaved into the Tennessee River. We even dabbled in a little pre-game math, concluding that if the old adage that having two quarterbacks meant you had none was true, Tennessee had negative sixteen special teams coaches.
The loss at Cal? Well, it was what it was. Actually, it wasn’t what it wasn’t, namely an SEC loss. No, the real concern was what the defeat revealed: on offense, a distressing lack of a vertical threat in the passing game, and, on defense, well, the defense. We couldn’t force turnovers, sack the quarterback, or make a tackle to save our hides. But nekkid hippies, so yeehaw.
Erik Ainge, Arian Foster, and most of the offense were at the top of the bell curve, so the fact that Southern Miss’s defense had nine starters returning from the prior season didn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of Vol fans. What did cause a few palpitations was the fact that the entire defense was at the bottom of the curve, and hey, if we couldn’t stop Cal, how did we expect to stop Damion Fletcher? Fletcher had rushed for 89 yards against eventual national champion Florida in his debut, a team that held our running backs to negative yardage. And Tennessee defensive linemen J.T. Mapu, Walter Fisher, and Xavier Mitchell had each had one tackle against Cal. Kickers Daniel Lincoln and Chad Cunningham had each had one tackle, too, which should drive the point home. If we didn’t do a better job on defense, we could be in trouble against even lowly Southern Miss.
So in the proverbial sandwich game, would Tennessee get caught looking back at Cal and/or ahead to Florida? Would it be a rebound game and momentum-builder for the Vols, or would it be Cal, Part II?
Um, Cal, Part II, at least for the first half. The Golden Eagles stormed out of the gate, driving 52 yards to get into field goal range on its first series. The next drive consisted of one play: a 69-yard touchdown pass. The next four drives resulted in a field goal, a missed field goal, a punt (woo!), and another field goal. Argh on the defense.
Fortunately, the offense was still functional and actually displayed somewhat of an ability to complete long pass plays. In the first half alone, Ainge completed passes of 27 and 32 yards to Lucas Taylor and passes of 26, 19, and 24 yards to Austin Rogers, who, much to the disappointment of Vol fans everywhere, played while wearing his helmet the entire time. The last drive of the first half included both a 32-yard pass to Taylor and a 24-yard pass to Rogers on 4th and 7, and culminated with a five-yard TD pass to Josh Briscoe to put the Vols up 17-16.
The defense, though, . . . bleck. It was in serious need of . . . something. Linebacker Rico McCoy to the rescue. McCoy closed out the first half by intercepting a pass as time expired. It wasn’t the interception, though, that triggered the turn around for the defense, it was what happened right after the interception: right on the threshold of the end zone, McCoy attempted to lateral the ball to a teammate and nearly gave away a score. Mysteriously, the play was stripped from the television replay, so we have no video, but allow me to reenact the scene from the stands: GREAT PLAY, RICO! . . . WHA?! . . . Yikes! . . . PIGS GET FED, HOGS GET SLAUGHTERED, RICO!
Just after that play, which earned McCoy a post-game Worst Decision award, Fulmer, with a prospective pre-halftime interviewer chasing him down, bee-lined to McCoy and nearly ripped his head off and kicked it through the uprights. Alas, we have no video of that incident, either. Anyway, the Vols were up 17-16 when the first half came to a close.
Fulmer must have absolutely lit up the entire defense at halftime. The Golden Eagles’ possessions after the break: fumble, punt, field goal, fumble, safety, over on downs, and expiration of time. McCoy, especially, was motivated, as evidenced by this beauty:
Please replace your divots, Mr. McCoy. Yes, quarterback-shaped craters, too.
Meanwhile, Ainge and the offense rolled, and we actually got to a point where we could get some new guys some playing time. You know, I kind of like the new guys:
Lennon Creer (RTT#5) was there, and then he was gone, and the defender was left wandering in the general vicinity looking like he’d misplaced his car keys.
Still, the story of the game was the defense. It was as if the new LCD scoreboards, which were bright as a nuclear blast when they went all white, finally purged them of all ills and made them new. It was sure nice to know, finally, that we had players who could actually take a mackle. Oh, and we won 39-19.
Player of the game, offense. Arian Foster, who shouldered the rushing duties for the Vols and racked up 125 yards on 23 carries for a 5.4 yard average. He had two touchdowns. Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers, both of whom got over 100 yards in the passing game, get honorable mention.
Player of the game, defense. Rico McCoy, who led the team in tackles, a couple of which were absolute snot-knockers. Honorable mention: the defensive line, which showed much improvement from last week.
So the Vols had recovered from Cal, survived the sandwich game, re-discovered its defense, and stretched the field offensively a bit. We were ready for the real season to begin.
We were ready for Florida.