I sat there with my head in hands for 15 minutes after the clock hit 0:00 and couldn't bear to get up and walk out of Neyland Stadium following Tennessee's embarrassing and costly 20-12 loss to Georgia.
The only thing that could get me up and moving was seeing Tyler Bray come over and talk to his father after walking off the field. Seeing as Bray's dad was only about 30 rows below me, I rushed down to catch the elder Bray as he was leaving his seat. Hey, it was worth a shot asking, right? I am a former journalist, after all. I ain't shy. All we knew at the time was Bray's thumb was heavily wrapped, he didn't return to the football game and our entire season probably hinged on the news Bray's dad may or may not give me.
As if I didn't feel badly enough about losing a game to a mediocre Georgia team by failing to do anything on offense and giving up two big defensive plays yet again, the answer Mr. Bray gave to my question pretty much finished me for the season.
"How is it?" I asked, already knowing the answer like I knew Justin Hunter's knee wasn't just sprained when he landed awkwardly at Florida.
The look on a dejected father's face told me the answer before his mouth did. "It's broken or dislocated," he said, shaking his head. "He said it's broken."
Of course it is.
This -- THIS -- is Tennessee football.
What's next? A fire ruining Neyland? Somebody going to steal General Neyland's statue? Take a chainsaw to the Torchbearer? NCAA outlaw running through the T? Vacate the 1998 national championship?
How can it get worse?
Realistically, the answer may be that we find out that the [hopefully unfounded] message board rumors about Tauren Poole tearing his hamstring are true. [Again, JUST a rumor with NOTHING to indicate any truth...] I'd like to say it can't get worse, but it seems a higher power has determined our penance has yet to be paid, so I'll shut up and just hope that we can win the six we'd expected to and qualify for a bowl.
For what it's worth, Matt Simms' performance in hurry-up-and-score mode wasn't all that bad, and that was a great throw to set up the touchdown. He hangs on to the football way, way too long, but it doesn't appear we're going to change that. I'm glad Simms stayed because we need him. Somehow, he has to survive the next two games against LSU and Alabama -- likely bloodbaths -- because we really don't need to burn Justin Worley's redshirt.
Bray's diagnosis of a broken thumb puts him out six weeks and returning hopefully in time for the regular season finale against Kentucky. That just means this is a year lost of development and rhythm between Bray and our young receivers. It also means the games we were probably going to lose, anyway, are going to be that much uglier.
But is it the difference in another win or another loss? I don't really think so, but I guess we'll get the chance to see.
Oh well, now that I'm crying all over again, onto the trends.
TRENDING UP [Boy, this is gonna be tough...]
- Devrin Young Is A Difference-Maker. He is not a mistake-free player, and he probably fails to consistently hang onto the football the way he should, but the Bearden High product looks like he has the potential to be a hometown hero before his days in orange are done. You just expect something to happen when #19 gets the ball. He had a 19-yard punt return against Georgia and also had four kick returns for 109 yards, including a 50-yarder. It's been a long time since we've had a weapon in the return game like him. How long until he is a key player in an offense needing all the help it can get now?
- Darrn Good Game. I know freshman punter Matt Darr had another disappointing punt that gave Georgia a short field, but he also showed everybody the leg that made him Scout.com's No. 1-ranked punter for the first time in his career. He pinned Georgia deep a couple of times and finished with a 42.2 ypp average in four punts. That was very encouraging to see, and while Michael Palardy also showed some signs of breaking out of it, he Daniel Lincolned an extra point and made me dislike him again.
Not the Same Lane. I noted last week that we needed to see a glimpse of why we recruited Marlin Lane, and, boy, did we ever Saturday night. He was still not a threat in the running game because nobody can be behind that pitiful offensive line, but Lane had six catches for 84 yards, and also had an electrifying near-game-changer, where he somersaulted forward after being tackled and was initially ruled that he maintained his balance for a long, highlight-reel touchdown. Though replays showed his hip was down and the TD was overturned, it was the kind of ridiculous, talent-dripping play we needed to see. Oh, and he led the team with eight yards on seven carries, so there's that. We may be seeing a lot more of Lane depending on how hurt Poole is. I also want to use this space to give a shout-out to Mychal Rivera's monster game, even though he doesn't get a trend-up of his own. He was terrific and, along with Lane, helped make the passing game a threat even in a poor offensive game.
Simms Showed Something. As I said before, it does not appear that all is lost at this point, even though it may feel that way. Matt Simms is a serviceable quarterback and a strong leader. The players love him. He is fiery. And he came in and completed 4-of-6 passes for 39 yards and led UT on its only touchdown drive. Sure, he has faults that are sometimes insurmountable like he hangs on to the ball way too long and he is prone to making poor decisions with pressure on him, but he has gotten the job done before, and he only really needs to not be a disaster to beat MTSU and Vandy before Bray comes back to help get us to a bowl game.
- The Defense Grinds It Out Well. There are too many big plays, back-breaking, game-changing, heart-ripping plays, and it will never, ever be OK for the defense to give those up. But a young defense is going to give those up, and it's probably just not going to get better for a while. Throughout the course of the game, though, there were encouraging things like holding Isaiah Crowell to a 3.1 ypc average and putting Georgia in big-decision situations. The next steps are getting rid of the big plays and getting off the field when you put teams in tough situations. Georgia converted most of those big plays Saturday thanks to Aaron Murray, and the Vols couldn't control the game because of it. But there are some encouraging things defensively from a game-planning perspective.
The Offensive Line is PATHETIC. I'm not going to sit here and type that a portion of the blame for our -29 total rushing yards through two league games doesn't fall on our mediocre running backs, but did you look at that number? Do it again: NEGATIVE TWENTY-NINE. [All-caps are a trend when I'm pissed ...] That is completely unacceptable, and it's time for changes along the offensive front. It's time for Alex Bullard to take his seat on the bench and Marcus Jackson to get a shot. It's time for current mediocrity in Dallas Thomas give way to the future of Antonio Richardson. Here's the thing: IT. CAN'T. GET. WORSE. It can't. This offensive line is nearly the same offensive line it was last year. The principle runner is the same. Yet, do you think Poole -- or Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson or ANYBODY -- can run for 100 yards against LSU or Alabama the way Poole did last year? Not a chance. They've regressed, and unless something changes drastically, Harry Hiestand should fear for his job. Until then, all stops need to be pulled out to get some semblance of a running game with Bray gone. This doesn't even mention James Stone's game-changing gaffe of a snap. I'd be calling for his head, too, if I thought we had anything behind him at center. Heads gotta roll at this point.
Our Luck. Herman Lathers' offseason injury that costs him at least half the season. Janzen Jackson dismissed from the team. Justin Hunter season-ending knee injury when he isn't even touched. Tyler Bray broken thumb, gone for basically the rest of the year. Tauren Poole status uncertain ... And that's just the injuries. What about SEC "official" Al Matthews -- he of the Jabar Gaffney no-catch/catch call in Neyland Stadium in 2000 -- completely screwing the Vols over again multiple times against UGA? What about finally selling out a huge game in a loud atmosphere and playing the worst offensive game of the season only to see a quarter of the fans quit on you with 9 minutes left? What about drawing LSU this season on the rotation when the Tigers have maybe their best team in a long time? How about this new NCAA issue popping up with Willie Lyles a couple weeks ago? I could go on and on and on, but I'd have to pull out The Cure albums and start cutting myself. I'm sick of whining every year, but damn, this sucks.
Frustrating Plays, Then Losing Focus. It's the same ol' thing with UT. The Vols just don't know how to respond to adversity. With the game tied 6-6, James Stone snapped the ball to that invisible man standing 5 feet to Bray's right, and the invisible man couldn't handle it. Thankfully, Bray fell on the ball, but the Vols had to punt. UGA took a short field and turned it into seven points quickly, stopped the Vols, then went 93 yards in three plays to turn a close game into a 20-6 lead in an eye-blink. That one play completely changed momentum, and a young team let it, and the coaches let them let it. Mind-bogglingly frustrating. Then, for every 15 quality defensive plays, there was a crippler like the 71-yard pass play to Malcolm Mitchell where Marsalis Teague just got torched.
Marsalis Teague and His Teammates In the Secondary. Speaking of Teague, this kid -- this ridiculously sickeningly-talented recruit -- has never made a memorable play for Tennessee. But he had his name called for all the wrong reasons Saturday, getting scorch-marked by Mitchell on the biggest play of the game. Teague also got beat twice more, but Aaron Murray overthrew the open receivers. Izaeua Lanier also got torched on a deep ball by Mitchell. But I was frustrated there was no safety help on either. I guess the Vols sold out to stop the run, but you've got to have good enough corners to handle man coverage when you do that, and Teague and Lanier certainly didn't do a great job of hanging with Mitchell and Tavarres King one-on-one. Those two big plays KILLED us -- and there were at least three more opportunities where the Dawgs receiver beat a UT cornerback that were squandered. At least Prentiss Waggner had 11 tackles and looked good.
Tiptoeing Through the Tulips. That's what I'm going to call whatever Murray was doing in the 4-5 seconds after the snap Saturday night. He certainly wasn't getting pressured. On those deep balls, he had time to stop, set his feet and throw. The Vols have not gotten pressure on the quarterback since Bill Clinton was President, and they failed again against UGA. Where was Curt Maggitt? We talk to much about Jacques Smith and what has he done? Just get a freakin' sack! Murray was able to just stroll around in the pocket the entire game, looking for a receiver to come open. Sure, Murray beat UT some in the first half with his feet, but the fact of the matter is we never gave him any reason to believe he was going to get hit. He simply read through his progressions, and we let him kill us over and over again without fear of punishment.