The gray cloud hovering over the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville this week followed the team bus to Oxford yesterday, where UT fell 42-17 to the Ole Miss Rebels. Having three heralded freshmen arrested and charged with attempted armed robbery on Thursday gave way to a complete and utter inability to stop Dexter McCluster or the Rebels' defensive line on Saturday. Just to top off the week, the game ended with the emergency training staff strapping LaMarcus Thompson to a backboard and carting him off the field.
The most bizarre thing was that Monte Kiffin's defense was almost entirely M.I.A. from the time we kicked the ball off out of bounds to the time the clock mercifully hit all zeros. Ole Miss stormed out of the gate, using only four plays to go 60 yards on its first drive, the last fifteen of which belonged to McCluster.
After a couple of ineffective drives for each team, it looked like Tennessee might have shaken off the emotional fog when it tied the game on a 16-yard pass from Jonathan Crompton to tight end Jeff Cottam.
But McCluster would have none of that, rushing for 44 yards on three of seven plays and another touchdown on the Rebels' next drive. The Vols again tied the game on the next series, though, courtesy of a Crompton to Denarius Moore 25-yard TD, and it began to feel like Tennessee might be able to pull it out if only it could get ahead.
But McCluster would have none of that, either, and on the Rebs' next drive, he carried the ball four times out of eight plays for 61 yards and yet another TD. At that point, it was essentially over. Tennessee came out strong to begin the second half, but managed only a Daniel Lincoln field goal on its first drive. We got an interception at midfield on Ole Miss's next drive, but promptly turned it over on downs, and our next three drives ended with a punt, another blocked field goal attempt (!), and another failed attempt at a fourth down conversion.
Meanwhile, McCluster and Ole Miss weren't even close to finished, scoring four more touchdowns in the second half, including a spectacular 71-yard scramble by McCluster for his fourth score. He finished the game with 282 yards rushing, 42 yards receiving (324 total), four touchdowns, and the starring role in Vol fans' nightmares for years to come. He was responsible for 57% of Ole Miss's points, 66% of their yards, and 90% of the Vols' frustration. In contrast, the Vols finished the week down three highly-touted freshmen, yet another linebacker, and yet another game.
Not to take anything away from Ole Miss, but yesterday afternoon, it was clear that the 2009 Vols had reached the bottom of their emotional reservoir. Not once this season had the Vols been out of the game with time left on the clock despite the well-established fact that this is a rebuilding year for Lane Kiffin and the Tennessee program. Not when Jonathan Crompton seemed like he was hell-bent on repeating the miserable high-conflict drama of the first act of his career rather than moving through the second on the way to the satisfying resolution of the third. Not when Nick Reveiz went out for the season, or when his replacement Savion Frazier went out for the season. Or when Frazier learned that he'd have to have medical tests before each game to determine whether his platelets would allow him to play on any given day. The coaching staff took a usually-overmatched team and got them through all of that just fine, thank you very much, largely due to heaping portions of boot-strapped energy, enthusiasm, and emotion, most all of which seemed to be missing on Saturday.
But the first of the cracks began to show a week or two ago, when Nu'Keese Richardson decided to skip a practice. A week later, Kiffin suspended Janzen Jackson for a game due to a "violation of team rules," which some have reported was a failed drug test. Then, the whole thing just shattered this past Thursday morning when Richardson, Jackson, and Mike Edwards were arrested and charged with attempted armed robbery. The collective team psyche just couldn't recover in time to play a strong game against a strong opponent with an exceptional athlete and an outstanding defensive line. Not piled on top of everything else we'd been through this season. Not when we were already overmatched.
Can Kiffin and the team recover and finish the season strong? Is there a way to fill up the tank for two or three more games? Yes, I think so. We have reason to believe that Kiffin can rally the troops if he has more than just two days to do it. He's demonstrated an ability throughout the season to do just that.
But it's late in the season, and perhaps there are no more buttons left to push. Perhaps there's only so much you can ask of a team during a rebuilding year, and perhaps that's why Nick Saban stumbled down the stretch of his first season with the Crimson Tide. Maybe it's just the way of things during a turnaround.
We won't know, of course, until next week against Vanderbilt and the week after against Kentucky. But if the team does in fact finish strong, it's going to have to do it on fumes.