Patience is the most difficult virtue for any fan base to acquire. For a fanbase of a storied program coming off of a disastrous 2008 campaign, asking for patience might as well be asking for the Moon to be land-granted to the university. The defense, as was the case last year, appeared to be carrying the team on their shoulders through the first half of the schedule, and yet the Tennessee Volunteers were still facing a 2-3 record with an out-of-conference loss to the UCLA Bruins. And the biggest on-field scapegoat of the 2008 season, Jonathan Crompton, was still the starting quarterback. Lane Kiffin insisted that Crompton was 'the man' for the team and that there was no quarterback controversy to be had, but the fans were wanting more. Even in the Auburn loss, the resurgent fourth quarter comeback bid by the Vols was tempered as "merely against the Auburn prevent defense". Outside of Western Kentucky, Lane Kiffin's offense still had little to show besides some spectacular rushing efforts by Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown.
But once in a while, patience is rewarded. After an early touchdown drive by the Volunteers, the Georgia Bulldogs responded with a kickoff return by Brandon Boykin to tie the game. And Volunteer fans had nothing to do but wait and see if the early success of the offense would finally, finally sustain throughout a meaningful game.
But if any unit came through in spades today, it was the offense. With 468 total yards of offense (310 passing, 158 rushing), Tennessee consistently found success moving the chains, driving into Georgia territory, and turning drives into touchdowns. The scoring started with that initial touchdown reception by Gerald Jones, and the Volunteers answered the kickoff return with another touchdown reception from Denarius Moore for 33 yards. After a Georgia field goal by Blair Walsh, Tennessee scored their third passing touchdown in a row when Crompton found a wide-open Marsalis Teague in the back of the endzone.
Special teams kept the game close, as a kickoff return touchdown, punt block safety, and interception return touchdown kept Georgia within one score at 24-19 midway through the third quarter, but the Tennessee offense just kept coming at them. That pick-six was also answered by an immediate touchdown score by a 39-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty that, if it wasn't assured already, will likely move him into the first round of the NFL draft.
For every Georgia success, Tennessee had an answer. And eventually, the Georgian responses to Tennessee's success ran out. While Tennessee scored touchdowns, Georgia survived on fortune. Monte Kiffin's defense shut down the Georgia offense, allowing only 241 total yards on the day, 89 yards rushing, and only one 53-yard field goal to be credited against the Big Orange defense.
PATIENCE IN JONATHAN CROMPTON
Being Jonathan Crompton isn't easy. After being the principal on-field scapegoat of the 2008 trainwreck of a season, every miscue has been magnified to become the height of frustration for the fans. When the Volunteers ran their first play of the day - a play-action rollout for am 18-yard complete pass to Quintin Hancock, fans waited with held breath to see if an interception was in the works. Even midway through the third quarter, when the Bulldogs collected a deflected pass for a pick-six, UT fans were wondering if Crompton would find a way to lose this one. All that, despite having had a very nice day.
And finally, the complete game came through. With quarterback and receivers on the same page, the Crompton Extravaganza just kept going. The interception was answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive, then a three-and-out for the Bulldogs was answered by the Vols with a 51-yard touchdown pass to Gerald Jones - the deep ball that Vols fans had been waiting to see all season long.
With a 310-yard, 20/27 completion, 4 touchdown and one interception day, Crompton finally rewarded Lane Kiffin's trust with the signature SEC win that was needed to justify the new coaching staff and give Vols fans confidence going into the bye week.
PATIENCE IN THE RECEIVERS
After a season of wrong routes and bobbled catches, frustration with the receivers came to a head during the first half against Auburn, with 6 dropped passes. After some one-on-one extended practice time between quarterbacks and receivers, the wideouts showed up to play to their potential on the day. 8 players caught passes today, and 3 of the top 4 performances in the passing game came from wide receivers (the other being tight end Luke Stocker). Gerald Jones provided key highlights with the first touchdown and the 51-yard touchdown, but Quintin Hancock provided the great effort play in the passing game with a long stretch-out to get a touchdown in the first. Freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague each added another catch to their early career resumes and had nice days overall, further affirming the ability for freshmen to contribute early in Lane's offense.
PATIENCE IN LANE KIFFIN
With all of the offensive frustrations that Vols fans have endured - stretching all the way back to 2005 - having a coach tell you that the offense is on its way is not a very satisfying thing to hear. That "on its way" offense still accounted for a UCLA loss, a loss to the Florida Gators, and a loss to the Auburn Tigers. Flashes of the concept would come through on occasion, but the only consistency was inconsistency. With Monte's defense a known quantity, people wanted to see that the young head coach would provided on his side of the ball, and the win over Georgia gave exactly that: reason to believe in the future.
With his first SEC win, Lane Kiffin has shown Tennessee fans that the team is on the right track. The bumps in the road are not entirely behind the team, to be sure, but progress - actual progress - on offense has finally been realized.
And for a bunch of frustrated coaches, players, and fans, that has to feel like absolute gold.