Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Big Orange Roundtable - Post-UCLA Edition


The newer, sleeker, more aerodynamic Big Orange Roundtable brings fewer questions and more answers during the season (insert your humorous comparison to the Tennessee offense here). We're hosting here this week, and the question we're posing to Vol Nation is "Who/what were you most disappointed in at UCLA, and what is your greatest concern for this team going forward?"

We'll get to that at the end of this post...but first, some observations I haven't had the chance to make until this morning:

When I was a student at the University of Tennessee, I took a class on US Cold War Foreign Policy. And during our thorough investigation of the Vietnam War, it seemed to me that when you examined each individual step and decision along the way, they all made sense at the time and in those moments.

But when you put all of those decisions together, it was a mess.

Tennessee fans have been complaining about the vanilla flavor of the offense for years. And it made sense when we've been all in the playcalling family for the last two decades. And when Urban Meyer walks into the SEC with his spread option and picks up a National Championship in only two years - even if it was won on the strength of the defense and an uncanny ability to win close games - you start to covet. Instead of two tight ends and running on 2nd and 10 and screen passes and throwing for four yards on 3rd and 7, we wanted something else. Something sexy.

When David Cutcliffe left us again, we all felt pretty good about the hire of an FCS head coach with an offense described as "get the ball to the playmakers" - and doesn't that sound silly this morning - because it was something new and it sounded sexy, and because we believed that if a man from Wisconsin-Milwaukee could take our basketball program forward, a coach from Richmond could easily do the same.

Most of us fell in love with the idea of this offense. You couldn't have really fallen in love with the offense itself, because you hadn't seen it.

And at the center of this lovefest was Jonathan Crompton.

Crompton became the latest in a long line of Vol QBs post-Manning who we all believed were going to be better than the last guy: Casey Clausen was thought to be more NFL-ready than Tee Martin, and Erik Ainge even more so. And it's always been true, but never more so than this morning: all three of those guys were pretty good quarterbacks.

The next best thing, who is now 0-3 in games where he takes the majority of snaps, went 19-of-41 for 189 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. At one point, he threw eight straight incompletions in the second half.

And so you can already hear the swing of the pendulum.

I understand the dissatisfaction with the old offense. I understand the excitement over Dave Clawson's hire. I understand being in love with an idea, anointing a new quarterback because of what he's supposed to be, and the general and often total optimism that runs rampant on every college campus in August.

But in September, when you put all that together, the Vols are 0-1. Again.

And after watching the travesty unfold last night, I also understand why Vol Nation may want to hang Clawson, Crompton and anyone else they can find.

And I hope that we're jumping to conclusions again.

Crompton is an inexperienced quarterback who's learning on the job. And so the hope is he'll get better. But last night...well, he didn't look good.

He didn't throw four interceptions like his counterpart, but the Vol offense did make those four interceptions a complete non-issue, because if you're Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow, all you have to say in the locker room is "Hey, it's 14-7 and we get the ball. We're fine."

He did make two throws to set up a Daniel Lincoln field goal to send the game to overtime, a sequence which should now and forever erase the thought that a squib or pooch kick is a good idea in that situation. But then the same Daniel Lincoln missed on his easiest attempt of the night, and a Vol team that was 7-1 in overtime coming in left with a bitter, frustrating defeat.

While the whole team shares in the loss, and you can maybe blame the defense for playing too conservative and not making adjustments in the second half, the reality is UCLA got only 288 yards and 17 offensive points in regulation. They had 29 yards rushing.

And there are always little things, and there were lots of them in this game: a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, another Arian Foster "worst possible time" fumble, a safety that wasn't a safety, two missed 50+ yard field goals, nine penalties to UCLA's two...the beat goes on.

But my greatest disappointment still comes back to that which we'd believed but hadn't yet seen: the offense.

More specifically, the playcalling.

I'm not throwing Crompton or Clawson under the bus. But when your quarterback is 19-of-41 and throws eight straight incompletions, it's the job of the playcaller to look at the following numbers:

- Arian Foster: 13 carries, 96 yards, 7.4 yards per carry
- Montario Hardesty: 12 carries, 66 yards, 5.5 yards per carry

And then it's his job to say "Hey...maybe we should just run the football."

It's vanilla. It's boring. But it was working. And Crompton was clearly struggling.

But the Vols kept throwing.

And it resulted in an offense with no rhythm, little success and no identity.

The Vols learned last year that you can look really bad, lose games early and still play for championships. The loss last night was not an SEC game (though it does put the Vols in that uncomfortable position with Mississippi State of owing the rest of the conference an apology), and if the Vols somehow find a way to beat Florida in eighteen days, things will be good again.

And it'll take until then to make it right, because beating UAB 200-0 won't make believers out of anyone.

But my greatest concern going forward still comes back to Crompton and Clawson - two guys unfamiliar with the full glare of life as the play and signal callers at the University of Tennessee, but two guys who are feeling it full blast this morning.

Clawson's a man. I'm not worried about his confidence or him second-guessing himself. And it's still Phillip Fulmer's ballclub, a man who is quite familiar with righting the ship, even as we'd all like him to be better and making sure the ship doesn't need quite so much righting in the first place.

But an offense without an identity is an offense ineffective. And when you've got two running backs averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry and a veteran offensive line, maybe it's time you put the west coast down and don't make Jonathan Crompton win it. Maybe it's time for a little more vanilla.

Meanwhile, Crompton used my absolute least favorite phrase for a Vol to use after a loss: "We don't need to get our heads down because we played good."

Your head shouldn't be down, you're right. It also shouldn't be in the clouds, which is exactly where it is if you think we played good.

Can Dave Clawson and the Vol offense find an identity that works, no matter which playmakers we're getting the ball to and even if that includes two tight ends (or more Kevin Cooper at fullback, a bright spot) and consistent carries for Foster and Hardesty?

Can Jonathan Crompton find the same rhythm and consistency, and improve as a quarterback while keeping his confidence? Can Crompton still be the one to lead us to realize the championship potential we were all so sure of one moment earlier?

Every season tells a story.

This one did not start well.

But it doesn't have to end the same way. Hopefully, Clawson and Crompton become the positive factors we all believed them to be, and not the greatest concerns we feel them to be this morning.

Go Vols.


Check back right here throughout the week to hear what the other members of the Big Orange Roundtable have to say about their biggest disappointments and their greatest concerns:

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