For all of the anticipation of the new season, we Vols fans are still stuck with an asterisk to the otherwise stellar first game: the opponent is a brand-new D-1A team with a 2-8 record in Division 1-AA play the prior year. That's certainly not a ringing endorsement on the ol' strength of schedule, especially so early in the year. Add to it the 57 underclassmen on the Western Kentucky roster, and it's not as easy to interpret the 63-7 margin of victory as we would like.
Fortunately, unlike what John Adams would have you believe, not everything that happened can be dismissed by saying, "But it was Western Kentucky." There are plenty of elements in the game that can be observed that are completely independent of the opponent. By looking at these pieces of the puzzle, it's a lot easier to walk away from the game impressed - and confident that what you saw was indeed a really good football team.
I've harped on this point several times already, so I'll go ahead and start here: there are no discernible communication issues between the coaches and the players. In particular, the relaying of playcalls from the sidelines to the team on the field is quick, precise, and well-understood. If you watch for it in a game, here is the typical progression you'll see after the offense completes a play.
- Jonathan Crompton checks the result of the play (down, distance, flags).
- Crompton then congratulates players if appropriate.
- Crompton then looks to the sideline for the play signal.
- Lane Kiffin (or sometimes David Reaves or another assistant) makes a brief signal.
- Crompton acknowledges and heads into the huddle.
- After about 2-3 seconds, the huddle breaks and everybody runs into position.
- Crompton makes any necessary adjustments based on defense.
- The ball is snapped and the next play is on.
I intently watched the intra-play action for most of the game, and I can tell you that you cannot insert the phrase "Crompton appears confused" in that list anywhere. Nor do the coaches look bewildered as the play unfolds. Nor do UT players run into each other in the backfield. The point is: everybody is on the same page.
And it's not just the offense: the same applies to the defense, who is also learning a brand new system. Our defenders have lot of communication on the field prior to the snap, particularly between the safeties. They're scanning the offense and checking with each other to make sure they're (a) seeing the same thing and (b) adjusting as a unit to the offense. Only once did I see that become a problem, when two non-Berry safeties (I forget the numbers now) kept discussing their positions right up to the snap, but it didn't end up putting them out of position on the play. For the first live day, that's not bad.
Bruce Lee once said, "the best style is to have no style." I believe that's true, in its own way, in football. Ideally, the opponent would never be able to guess if you're running or passing (or, if you're on defense, if you're in man/zone or whatever). The less that can be predicted, the harder it is to counter. That said, there are some sensible guidelines available. For example, if one phase of the game is particularly dominant - use it.
By the end of the first quarter, the Vols had turned the ball over twice - an interception and a fumble. Lane went into a run-heavy playcalling routine because the run was working and he simply wanted to get some points on the board. In a drive that featured 10 rushing plays to only 1 pass, the Vols drove 81 yards for their first score. But take a look at the next two drives:
First Drive after Bryce Brown's TD
- 1 pass: Crompton to Stocker for a 17-yard touchdown
Second Drive after Bryce Brown's TD
- 1 rush, then 4 passes culminating in a 9-yard TD pass to Quintin Hancock
After Brown's touchdown, the easy impulse would have been to stick with the run-heavy game and beat Western Kentucky into the ground. However, Kiffin kept mixing the plays up and took advantage of the effective rushing game to open up the passing game - to good effect.
Within the drives, the play calls made sense. No halfback draws on 3rd and 15. The calls, while not necessarily predictable, were the types of calls that had reasonable odds of success for the situation, and I haven't heard of anybody questioning any of the play calls - not even the 4th down attempt or the timeouts at the end of the first half.
The team was well-disciplined. There were no instances of trash-talking to Western Kentucky on the field, and no noticeable displays of any me-first attitudes on or off the field. They came to play and they came to win. They didn't come to showboat. Want evidence? Look at the penalties:
- Roughing the passer on Dan Williams. (It was a judgment call that could conceivably go either way.)
- Substitution infraction.
- Illegal block (on a punt return).
- Illegal formation.
- False start.
- False start.
Six penalties. The first was understandable, as Williams was basically on top of the quarterback when he threw, but the increased emphasis on quarterback safety compelled the referee to throw the flag. Another was an illegal block on a punt return, which is one of those common-yet-aggravating things you see when the defenders have their back turned to the runner and don't know which way he's going. The rest were about average for any given team.
No holding. No offsides. No delay of game. That's a good thing.
It's something we've always kinda hated Florida for, yet secretly coveted as well: they go straight for the jugular and when they get it, they don't let go. While Fulmer did have a lot of class to put the brakes on and keep scores from getting out of control, it sometimes came at the expense of that unforgiving killer mentality, and that's something crucial to undefeated seasons.
At halftime (or any point forward), UT could have sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the game. If the final score had been 35-7 or 42-10, I don't think any of us would have complained. Lane Kiffin, however, had different ideas: by keeping the throttle wide open - even when the backups were in the game - and not simply playing to kill the clock, he let the entire team know that he was there to play for keeps, and salvaging the pride of the opponent was no longer an issue.
This is a tricky thing to teach in a game against a clearly outmatched opponent: if you keep your starters in until late in the game (*cough* Florida 2008 *cough*), you look really bad for running up the score and padding stats (even if the boosters are happy that you covered the Vegas spread). But if you pull them too soon, you can risk letting the emotion of the game fade and a significant portion of your team can now relax and chill out on the sidelines.
The team stayed focused for all 60 minutes - against a cupcake comprised of roughly 2/3 underclassmen at home while up by a conclusively large margin. That attitude translates into a team that stays on point in a real dogfight against an equal, and does not result in a team that gets jittery and begins making nervous mistakes. Again, see Florida under either Meyer or Spurrier. You hate 'em, but you have to admire their ability to stick it to an opponent.