It was only mid-September, and like so many times before, an early loss to the Florida Gators had Vol fans looking for help in the SEC East. This year, though, due to the degree of dishumiliarrassment and the fact that we’d also already suffered an embarrassing loss to Cal, Vol fans were even more divided than usual, the more pessimistic ones disgusted at the optimists’ refusal to acknowledge that the program had a serious, chronic condition and the more optimistic ones pointing out that no fan who was upset to hear about a Tennessee special teams player giving up against Florida should give up as a fan.
With all the post-dishumiliarrassment bickering, lamenting, and wailing, the following week’s game against Arkansas State snuck up on us and had the potential to drive the team and its fans over a cliff into another season like that one.
Fortunately, Tennessee avoided the cliff, at least for this week:
The Vols’ first drive actually stalled at the 20, forcing a field goal attempt by Daniel Lincoln. He hit it, but Arkansas State roughed him on the play, and the coaches actually took the points off the board. Good thing, too, because on the next play Erik Ainge found Chris Brown for a 15-yard touchdown. This would not be the only time during the season that Tennessee would make good on a second chance.
Offense. As the drive chart shows, Tennessee had a decent day. Overall, Ainge and the offense looked good, scoring six touchdowns and two field goals. Ainge was on target and in command except for one bizarre interception that was returned for a touchdown. He hit 11 different receivers, almost doubled Arkansas State’s first downs (30 to 17), and led the offense to 523 total yards to the Indians’ 377. LaMarcus Coker got the bulk of the work at running back, and he had 15 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown, 49 receiving yards (and a touchdown), and 67 yards on kickoff returns. Arian Foster added 57 yards on 12 carries, and Lennon Creer had 29 on nine carries.
Defense. At times, the defense looked like they had improved. They broke up several passes, intercepted two of them, and even got some decent pressure on the quarterback. They still gave up 178 yards rushing and 196 yards passing, though, and they were in serious need of some consistency. Eric Berry seemed to be improving faster than anyone else on defense. He had already effectively usurped Rico McCoy's position as the team’s best tackler and Jonathan Hefney's as the leader in the secondary. Part of the latter might have been due to Hefney’s disappearing act as the team’s punt returner. Hefney, the guy who’d had several season highlights as a returner the prior season, gained negative 17 yards in that role against the Indians.
Coaching. The coaches seemed to be balancing the need to win the game with the need to figure out how to beat Georgia in two weeks by getting a bunch of new guys on the field for live tryouts. DeAngelo Wilingham joined Berry in the secondary and the two of them were all over the place. Brent Vinson and Nevin McKenzie also saw a good deal of action back there, and Lennon Creer and Ben Martin also got some fair minutes.
Player of the game, defense. Robert Ayers, who had six total tackles (five solo), two sacks, and another tackle for a loss.
Player of the game, special teams. Daniel Lincoln, who has set a Tennessee record by hitting the first eight field goal attempts of his career.
Player of the game, offense. Lucas Taylor was the player of the game, grabbing seven catches for 104 yards and serving up two of the game’s biggest plays: a one-handed 23-yard catch and a 17-yard touchdown during which he broke two tackles to get into the end zone:
Overall, it was a decent game for the Vols, and it was received by fans according to their particular frame of mind. Where some saw signs of improvement as reason for optimism, others saw reason to be terrified of what Darren McFadden would do to the team. Old Smokey said take your pick: pony or pony poo.
Whatever camp any particular fan was in, he or she would be there for a couple of weeks. The team would head to the underground bomb shelter for the catastrophic bye week that was to come and would emerge the following week to host the Georgia Bulldogs.
Elsewhere this week: Brains!