Today, we kick off the Best Plays of 2009 Brackety-ish thing. Plays will compete against each other each day, Monday through Friday, from now until we determine a champion on Monday, 6/28/10. The first of eight First Round match ups pits Safety Bloody Safety against Wes Brown Gave His Knees For Tennessee. Voting for this one will remain open until 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, 6/16/10.
Safety Bloody Safety
At stake: A 2-0 start to the Lane Kiffin Era and an opportunity to avenge a 2008 loss to UCLA and two consecutive losses to the Pac-10.
In-game context: At this point in the season, Vols fans didn't really know what to make of the offense's 657 yards and nine touchdowns against WKU in the season-opener. Was the Clawfense rather than the players completely to blame for 2008? Was Lane Kiffin's system going to rack up points like that on a regular basis? Or was the offensive explosion something anyone could have done against lowly Western Kentucky?
The jury would be out on those questions for several more weeks, but if the WKU game was a relentless prosecution of the Clawfense, the UCLA game was a dogged defense of it. Kiffin's offense managed only 208 yards total. Jonathan Crompton threw three interceptions, and his efficiency rating went from 189.5 against the Hilltoppers to 57 against the Bruins.
Still, the game was tight throughout, with UCLA managing only a slight lead for most of the game. Tennessee cut the lead down to six with a little under ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter and forced UCLA into a three-and-out. Taking the ball at about midfield, they drove down into scoring territory down 19-13 and had first-and-goal at the eight yard line. This was the team's opportunity to finally take the lead. When faced with a fourth down at the two yard line, Kiffin elected to go for it . . . and came up short. The Bruins remained in front by six with two minutes left to play, but backed up in their own end zone.
UCLA was rattled. They started the drive with a penalty, then rushed for no gain, and on second down, they fumbled the ball but recovered. Tennessee took a timeout with the Bruins facing 3rd and nine on their own two yard line and the clock at 1:48. The Vols just needed to stop them, to force them to punt so they could have another shot at the end zone and the win. Dennis Rogan saw to that, inadvertently breaking the UCLA QB's jaw in two places in the process:
Impact: Unfortunately, none of it mattered, as Crompton threw three incompletions and took a sack on Tennessee's opportunity drive. This is one of several in this Best Plays of 2009 that would have been much bigger had the ultimate outcome been different.
Wes Brown Gave His Knees For Tennessee
At stake: A bowl game and a chance to say that the program had decided correctly and that the team had improved from the bowl-less 5-7 2008 campaign -- the Season of Constant Sorrow -- that got Phillip Fulmer fired. On one hand, it felt like the team had improved. Contrary to the recent past, they'd either been competitive against their biggest rivals -- losing to Florida by ten instead of enduring the Biblical plague most had predicted and should-have-beating eventual national champion Alabama but for three missed field goals -- but the team had also had its share of face plants against UCLA, Auburn, and Ole Miss. Tennessee was 5-5 with Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining. Even the 2008 team had beaten those guys.
In-game context: There are two components to the in-game context for this play: the matter of Wes Brown's knees and the outcome of the game itself.
I addressed the Wes Brown aspect in detail right after the game, but here's a summary: When Lane Kiffin took over the program, one of his rules was that every player was going to compete every week for a starting position. There were two exceptions to this rule: Eric Berry and . . . Wes Brown. Why Wes Brown? After nearly 50 games in orange, the senior's battered knees had only a small ration of snaps left to give. The coaches wanted him, and only him, to save those snaps for the games, for when it really mattered.
The game itself was, much like many games between the in-state rivals, give and take. UT got a touchdown from Montario Hardesty on its first drive. The teams then traded field goals and touchdowns, and Tennessee added one more TD to end the half up 24-10. There were no real scares for most of the rest of the game until the Commodores added the second of two field goals with 2:54 remaining to narrow the lead to eight points. From there, Tennessee tried to run out the clock, but after getting one first down, they failed to convert a 4th-and-3 at Vandy's 25 yard line and gave the ball back with 26 seconds remaining. Vandy didn't have much of a shot, but it did have a prayer. After an incompletion and an eight-yard rush on second down that stopped the clock, Wes Brown and his knees decided that now, on Senior Night, was a Time That Really Mattered.
Impact: There's always a certain amount of sheer joy at a big defensive lineman getting the opportunity for a pick six. Pile on top of that, though, that it was fifth-year senior Wes Brown on Senior Night on essentially the last play of the game dragging a would-be tackler the last eight yards on those spent knees, and well, you have a special memory. Tennessee would have almost certainly won anyway, but Brown made sure of it, and the team went to 6-5 and ensured that 2009 would at the very least have one more win on the books than the 2008 season.