This is how little faith Tennessee fans have in Jonathan Crompton:
On the Vols' final drive of the game, dozens of UT fans where I was sitting headed for the exits on third down. They didn't stop to watch 4th and 14. They didn't turn around when an offsides penalty created 4th and 9. They didn't listen when other UT fans chastised them for doing so.
And Crompton, true to the form that is without question a more accurate picture of his abilities than the one we saw last week, didn't give them a reason to be wrong.
Maybe I'm just tired of blaming Jonathan Crompton, and am looking to blame someone else. Maybe I'm frustrated by people like the guy sitting behind me, who tapped me on the shoulder on the second play of the game and told me to sit down. (To people like that: stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution.)
But then the crowd was at its best when the defense needed them the most: UCLA's consecutive 4th quarter drives that produced three and out and the safety were some of the loudest moments in Neyland in five years. Tennessee fans seem very willing to support Lane Kiffin and to rise to the occasion when the defense needs us.
But Tennessee fans enjoyed one week of sobriety from turning their emotions on Jonathan Crompton, and it'll be one week only: 13 of 26 for only 93 yards, 3 interceptions and a fumbled snap (which Kiffin blamed on Cody Sullins going on one when Crompton called to go on two).
Without the interceptions, it was a Rick Clausen-like performance: lots of checkdowns, with almost half of his pedestrian 13 completions going to backs and tight ends. And more than that, an inability to throw downfield, which to no surprise produced 4 of 16 on third downs and no prayer on the game's final drive.
But with the interceptions, it becomes something worse. And something frustratingly familiar.
Lane Kiffin is a man of his word: he said he would not rotate quarterbacks, and he didn't. He's held true to everything he's said thus far in his tenure, so don't be surprised if Nick Stephens doesn't see any action next week either (plus, if you think Stephens is going to give us the best chance to win the rest of the year, perhaps you don't throw him to the Gators in The Swamp in a game Tennessee has less chance to win than any I can ever remember in my lifetime...perhaps Crompton takes the fall next week and Stephens starts against Ohio).
Or perhaps Kiffin is riding Crompton to the finish. If that's the case, he's going to risk doing serious damage to the goodwill and momentum he's built in the program thus far. I feel like I should type "unless Crompton improves"...but how much longer can we truly make that case?
Adding to the frustration is the way Crompton handles himself in postgame interviews. Last year, when the Vols lost to UCLA, Jon had this to say:
"We don't need to get our heads down because we played good."
It was a giant red flag from our new quarterback, because neither the team nor his 19 of 41 performance could be considered playing good nor well.
Last night, after Tim Priest did his very best to word a question about his four turnovers in a positive way, Crompton made a comment about four turnovers being "part of the game".
You know, Jonathan...it doesn't have to be part of the game. We could not shoot ourselves in the foot and see how well that works out for us.
I like trying to stay positive, which Crompton was doing in the larger context in saying that despite the struggles, the Vols still had a chance to win. Kiffin went that route as well at the start of his postgame interview with Bob Kesling.
But two years and lots and lots of emotional mileage ago, Erik Ainge threw two fourth quarter interceptions in the biggest game of his life, and almost single-handedly cost the Vols an SEC Championship. In a way, Tennessee fans were probably more upset with him in that one moment than we've ever been at Crompton, who's never had the luxury of playing for those kind of stakes.
And you know what Ainge said in the postgame?
I shouldn't have thrown the ball out there. I mean, just as much as he made a good play, I made a bad decision. We played good, we protected all night. The guys played hard, I throw an interception for seven points when it's a tie game, it's going to get you beat. It's on me.
The best players take responsibility for their mistakes. And yes, we win as a team and lose as a team, something Kiffin was quick to point out. But with a defense that gave up only 186 yards and has been at or near the top of the FBS leaderboards for the better part of the last 14 games, Kiffin is going to have to do some serious management, quickly.
Having seen plenty of him now, we can't fully expect the Jonathan Crompton we saw last week to show up again unless the Vols play Western Kentucky again. Everyone else on the schedule is a significant upgrade from the Hilltoppers.
Tennessee's defense, and a running game that works hard will keep them competitive in plenty of the 10 remaining games on the schedule, and give the Vols a chance to make it 11 with a bowl of some kind. The offensive line, if it stays healthy, we hope will continue to mature.
Jonathan Crompton comes to work every day for this program, and I appreciate his effort. We can't ask him to be the guy he was against WKU. But all the coaching staff and the team need from him in games like today - of which I feel there will be several before we're done this year - is to not hurt us, not get us beat.
The perception was that this was a new day for the Vols and for Crompton. The reality is we'll still go as far as a quarterback can take us, only instead of watching him carry us to victory, we're just hopeful he doesn't carry us to defeat.
I'm curious about next week, but Florida is so good I'm not sure what we can learn definitively from it (much the same with WKU being so bad). But for the rest of the year, can this defense and this running game bring us home?
I'd much rather see them do it with our quarterback than in spite of him.