October 5, 2008

Longest yard shows Vols struggles

There, on three consecutive snaps in the waning moments of Tennessee's 13-9 win Saturday night over Northern Illinois inside Neyland Stadium, was a snapshot of the Volunteers' season.

On second-and-1, a first down would have secured just Tennessee's second win in the season's first six weeks.

On third-and-1, ditto.

On fourth-and-1? Yep. Same song, different verse.

"We got no push," first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said of UT's final offensive series. "Heck yeah (it's disturbing). You got a second-and-1 to end the football game and three shots at it, and you don't get a yard. You're not going to throw the ball then. At that time you've got to line up with your veteran offensive line and say you're going to knock them off the ball and say you're going to get a yard and you're going to have your big tailback in there and he's going to find a crease and the game's over. Yeah, that's real disappointing."

Never did the Vols pick up that yard, and with two missed field goals already, they didn't call on Daniel Lincoln, either. So they were stuffed, and Northern Illinois took possession with no timeouts and mere seconds to play.

Hey, right now, anything's possible with Tennessee football.

And UT's win wasn't secured until a mundane game ended with a bizarre, forward pass by the Huskies culminated in a multi-lateral, 19-yard loss.

"We definitely didn't play well enough to beat a team like Georgia, or Alabama or South Carolina or Mississippi State," senior wideout Josh Briscoe said. "We didn't play well enough to beat any teams like that. We have to go out and continue to work hard in practice."

Clawson looked at the scoreboard Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium and couldn't help but wonder where the points were.
Four times, Tennessee's offense moved inside Northern Illinois' 20-yard line. It didn't score a touchdown on any of those trips and missed another chip-shot field goal.

Though first-time starter Nick Stephens effectively managed the offense under center, the Vols had at least one turnover for the ninth consecutive game courtesy fumbles by both Stephens and Briscoe.

Clawson said the Vols could have easily had 27 points. Instead, the offense scored 17 or fewer points for the fourth time in five games.

The defense, which yielded just 190 yards, nonetheless couldn't get off the field, logging more than 33 minutes of action.
Northern Illinois' offense snapped off 60 plays. Tennessee's? Just 50.

"We'll take the win," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. "… Defensively, I thought again we played very well. Offensively, we made some steps, I think, in the right direction. We're still not as efficient as we need to be. It seems like everything we do is really hard for us."

Too hard, really, and the Vols should thank only themselves for those difficulties. A week after committing a season-low three penalties, Tennessee doubled up that number with six.

With a chance early in this game to push out to a 7-3 lead, the Vols had a first-and-goal situation nullified because Gerald Jones caught a pass from an illegal formation.

Thirty-two minutes and 23 seconds of game clock expired before Tennessee had its first lead. This against a team that yielded a combined 60 points to football powers Minnesota and Western Michigan.

There was encouragement in Stephens' deep balls to Denarius Moore, for 52 yards and a touchdown, and Gerald Jones, for 43 yards.

But there also was a sense of perspective.

"We take some confidence from tonight. We had two deep balls tonight with Denarius Moore's touchdown and Gerald Jones had a deep ball," Briscoe said. "We went deep a little more this game, but the way we played tonight we wouldn't beat very many SEC teams."

Right now, Briscoe's words are a snapshot of Tennessee's season.

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