Reviewing the 2007 season. Because those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to have a new coach next year.
Seriously. What’s the deal? It’s one of the Tennessee Volunteer football program’s more troubling identities: They play best when things are at their worst:
Saturday, October 6, 2007. With blowout losses to both Florida and Cal still fresh in the minds of Tennessee Volunteer fans, local columnist John Pennington publishes an article quoting nine anonymous former Tennessee players that have some pretty serious concerns about the current state of the program. Coach Fulmer calls it a cheap shot and the team goes out and thumps the Bulldogs 35-14.
Saturday, October 27, 2007. Steve Spurrier's coming to town, and local artist Dan Proctor publishes a cartoon depicting the Grim Reaper at coach Fulmer's door with the OBC ringing the bell. Meanwhile, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit opines on a national broadcast that Tennessee's players are more concerned about the NFL than their college team. Coach Fulmer and the players are not amused. Tennessee dominates the Gamecocks in the first half and holds on for an impressive 27-24 overtime victory.
Friday, November 2, 2007. It's Homecoming, and Knoxville talk radio host Jimmy Hyams publishes a column on Scout.com's Inside Tennessee web site criticizing the team for requiring media criticism to get up for games. The following day, Tennessee waxes Louisiana-Lafayette 59-7.
Monday - Saturday, November 5 - November 10, 2007. An entire nation engages in week-long all-McFadden-all-the-time idol worship. The players, sick and tired of hearing about it, put on the defensive performance of their collective careers and humiliate the Hogs 34-13.
With two games left in the regular season, Jerod Mayo was feeling the vibe. “Every time you guys talk bad about us, we play good, so keep talking bad,” he says.
Yeahbut Jerod. We got Vandy this week. How are we supposed to talk bad about you when you’re in the driver’s seat in the SEC East with only the Commodores and Kentucky left?
Well, Vol fans, if you say you'll GIVE YOUR ALL FOR TENNESSEE TODAY, if you can truly bleed on your hunting vest and not even notice, if you want your team to win, you will listen to Mr. Mayo. You will tell him he can’t beat Vanderbilt.
As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s exactly what we Vol fans did. Or rather, that’s what we tried to do. We mostly failed. I got things rolling by bringing up 2005, but I immediately felt dirty and repented. Ghost of Neyland tried to tack one on, but had to call in a ringer to do the dirty work. Volstothewall made a run at it but was seen soon thereafter atoning for his sins backstage, whimpering softly in a fetal position. BloodSpite was frightened by the entire process. Bulldurham piled on but cautioned against the pull of the dark side. XRayVol spewed forth a terrific rant, but was immediately and genuinely remorseful. Volorado hurled the ultimate insult by talking about basketball, but his signature reminded us that he is the charter member of the Eric Berry Man Crush Club. And while Holly was sincerely dreadful, Old Smokey reminded us that you really can't teach old dogs new tricks. If the Vols needed us to motivate them with negativity, well, they were in dire trouble.
The problem was that the team was actually pretty good and getting even better. They were perfectly positioned to win out and represent the East in the SEC Championship. And regardless of whatever lies Corn from a Jar was telling himself and the rest of the ‘sphere, the team coming to town Saturday really was the same old Vandy. Right?
In the beginning, it was, in fact, just like old times. In the beginning.
Tennessee’s offense and defense were tearing it up against the Black and Gold, stringing together four excellent series. Erik Ainge was distributing with precision, and the defense looked more like it did against Georgia and Arkansas than it did against Florida and Alabama. After the first four series, the Vols had amassed 122 yards on offense and held the Commodores to 17 yards. Same old Vandy.
There was one aspect of the game that wasn’t going so well for Tennessee. After their first TD, Daniel Lincoln looked like he was bored attempting the extra point in the normal fashion and decided to try to skim it off center Josh McNeil’s tailbone just for fun. Uh, as you might imagine, he missed. Then, when the Vols’ next drive stalled at the 24, Lincoln boinked one off the right upright in the wrong direction. So yeah, the orange and white were dominating, but the score wasn’t 14-0 or 10-0 or even 7-0. They were leading 6-0. Woo.
Hey, somebody add this to the Maxims: squandered opportunity is the enemy of momentum. Tennessee’s next drive was three plays and eight yards, and Vandy answered with an epic 17-play, 78-yard drive that took 9:02 (!) off the clock. ‘Dores up 7-6.
Next, Lincoln finally squeezed one through the upright without hitting anything, but Vandy answered again and eventually went into the break up 17-9.
The Tennessee locker room at halftime? Apparently Not a Happy Place. Reports variously describe coach Fulmer as a Big Orange Flaming Inferno. Demonte Bolden and Jerod Mayo told the rest of the team in no uncertain terms that they’d better get their heads out of their butts and go play football.
Apparently that takes longer than you’d think, because Vandy went right back to work at the top of the third quarter and ripped off a 75-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 24-9.
Sorry, but that deserved its own paragraph. Anyway, the defense found its footing first, but the offense, like the Millennium Falcon, needed a good solid whack before it would whir to life:
Enter Vanderbilt's Broderick Stewart. The offense was only flirting with signs of life when Britton Colquitt came in to punt after yet another stalled drive. Colquitt absolutely nailed a 56-yarder, but more importantly, Stewart absolutely nailed Colquitt, and the officials assessed a 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty against him. It was just what Tennessee's offense needed: a taste of momentum and a second chance. This time, they made the most out of it and cut the lead to eight.
So yeah, there’s that second chance thing again. Tennessee then held, then scored another touchdown, but failed on the two-point conversion.
With Vandy clutching a 24-22 lead like it was its last thousand from the trust fund, Tennessee needed a stop to prevent them from milking the clock empty. They did, holding the ‘Dores to a three and out.
Ainge then took the team to the 16, and Lincoln put Tennessee up by one with a 33-yard field goal with 2:34 left to play.
Game over, right? Not quite. The ensuing kickoff:
Horrible coverage by the Vols, but woo for Rogan for fighting off two blockers and finally getting the guy out of bounds. In any event, time and space were once again working against the Vols. Vandy was practically in field goal position already, and they could chew the clock, leaving Tennessee with almost no time for any further heroics. Our only hope? They. Go. Nowhere.
Or backwards. Enter Jerod Mayo:
There was a pass interference penalty in there that gave Vandy some yards, but Mayo kept the balance mostly at zero. So the 'Dores were able to waste the time, but they were unable to get much closer. The Commodores set up for a 49-yard field goal attempt and . . .
Another game, another crisis narrowly averted. Surely, it had to get easier next week.
Fiddlin’ on the roof against Kentucky up next.