Six hundred, thirteen days.
That's the length of time between the Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin at the end of the 2007 season and the win over Western Kentucky to open the 2009 season. In-between those two games, the Tennessee Volunteers have had two complete offensive staff changes and a complete overall coaching change, including the head coach. They have also experienced the height of frustration, with an immovable defense in 2008 and a comedy-of-errors offense that couldn't do anything in kind. In addition to the turnover, the players watched as stadium attendance consistently dwindled down to perhaps 70% of capacity and heard the Alabama cheers as loudly as those of their own fans.
So you can forgive them if they were a little overeager to vent.
Coming out of the gate, the defense picked up where it left off last year, smothering the Hilltoppers offense. With the exception of a judgment-call roughing the passer penalty, Western Kentucky could not manage a first down for the first 40 minutes of the game, and after the lone scoring drive, they failed to earn another first down for the rest of the game. The only disappointment any Vols fan felt was that there were almost no opportunities for interceptions; the defensive line had not only set up residence in the Hilltopper backfield, they established a new zip code where they could receive their new utility bills.
And then there was the offense. Throughout the game, they moved the ball well and sustained drives as any elite team should against a newcomer to 1-A ball. The only real hitch in the offense was their early jitters; Crompton threw an early interception after failing to read the defensive pass coverage properly. Multiple fumbles happened early, though Hardesty's was the only one to be turned over in the early going. Even Nu'Keese Richardson felt the early anxiety, fumbling his first punt catch and losing yardage on the recovery. The butterflies in the stomach stalled out the drives in the first quarter, resulting in a 0-0 score by the first break.
But the offense kept marching forward. After calming down, Jonathan Crompton proceeded to have a brilliant game, going 21 for 28 passing for 233 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. But for all the success of the passing game, it will inevitably be overshadowed by the rushing game, where Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown ran for 164 and 108 yards respectively, and the team ended with 380 yards at an 8.6 yard-per-carry clip. The offense had zero punts and zero field goal attempts; they needed neither. The one failed fourth-down attempt was a confidence nod to the offense, and one that surely let them know that their new coach believes in them.
But, dominance. Remember that this is still fundamentally a team that couldn't move to within field goal range in Auburn when starting on the short side of the 50, and had to completely shut down the passing game during the final two games just to save face and win against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The Live Experience
For those who watched on TV, you only saw half of the show. The new sideline is a completely different environment from years past; every coach spends about half their time mid-jump as their excitement just could not be contained. At one point in the second half, the coaches huddled the entire team together and proceeded to initiate a Wild-Boyz-esque rally, complete with jumping and primal screaming. The students caught the fever and began to cheer and yell with the team, resutllng in one of the most entertaining breaks in action I've seen in a long, long time.
The positive energy within the team is unreal. Even early on, when the breaks were going against the Vols, everybody on the sideline remained 100% behind the offense. The defense never gave a sideways glance or showed any frustration; they simply went back out, flattened the Hilltoppers, and got the ball back for the offense to try again. That is not to say that the errors were whitewashed; the coaches got into players' grills as appropriate and weren't afraid to let a little spittle fly, but they always ended with a word (really, a shout) of confidence and the team was once again whole.
Dancing. Some of those players have some pretty good moves. One (Nigel Mitchell-Thornton or LaMarcus Thompson, I couldn't tell which) had a great little jig going during one late-game rendition of Rocky Top. Others had a variety of smooth moves seemingly designed to drive the sundress-clad students wild. And Montori Hughes is still his absolutely hilarious self. The dude's a one-man stand-up act.
I'm no shill for the university. Heck, the Sports Information Department would probably prefer that I, as an uncouth, undisciplined blogger, would cease to exist. But it's a very fun experience in Neyland Stadium with this new group of coaches and I highly recommend it if you get the chance. The players love it, the coaches love it, and the fans in attendance today loved it. When the bigger teams roll into town and the games aren't such blowouts, Neyland Stadium is going to be every bit as loud and raucous as it ever has been in the past. I guarantee it.