Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A Frustrating Start - And Finish

I am sure that there are people who would disagree, but being a fan of the Tennessee Volunteer football team is the most frustrating experience in college sports. Yesterday's loss to Penn State exemplifies the frustration of the average Vol fan. Tennessee has an incurable knack for playing to the level of their competition. What that means is that they are constantly in games they should not be and are constantly letting inferior teams hang around. Penn State is a team with a lot of talented players and a coach that has been coaching since the Truman administration (literally), but Tennessee should have beaten them easily. (And by the way, I realized that Joe Paterno was in the press box from the moment I started watching, so was it necessary to show his reaction to every play on the field.)

The game followed the normal pattern of a sluggish first quarter, followed by a sluggish second quarter, followed only by a more sluggish third quarter. The sluggishness did have just enough moments of excitement in them (i. e. the Lamarcus Coker run) to make you think that the Vols would turn it on later in the game. All that led to a fateful play in the fourth quarter.

In a typical Tennessee game there is typically one play or possession that defines the whole game. In this game it came after Penn State missed a field goal in the fourth quarter. Tennessee took the ball and drove down inside the Penn State 20 yard line. It was first and ten from the 13 when Arian Foster took the ball and ran off tackle right. (Now, we could take some time to talk about how every Tennessee fan in the state knew they were going to hand the ball off to the tailback and run off tackle right, but that is for another time.) Foster looked to be stopped for a very short gain. It was such a seemingly insignificant play, that I actually walked into the kitchen to get something to drink. In my absence, I missed the fumble, recovery, and 88 yard return by Penn State that put them ahead by a touchdown. By the time I got back to the TV, the replays had begun and the score was Penn State 17 - Tennessee 10. When I reported to my Father-in-Law about what just happened, I simply said, "Tennessee just lost the game."

After the game, Foster was understandably upset. But it was not his play alone that cost the Vols the game. It was the all too common errors of the Fulmer era. It was the playcalling that turned too conservative. It was the wide receivers dropping or being dislodged from big plays. It was our inability to find our All-American receiver on anything but a slip screen or five yard square in. It was our most dangerous player touching the ball only four times in the second half. It was the lack of intensity in a big game (again). It was our defense being manhandled by a team that just runs it down your throat. It was our punt returner calling for a fair catch at our own 5 yard line. It was typical Tennessee football. I swore after sitting in freezing temperatures at the Cotton Bowl and watching Kansas State dismantle the Vols a few years ago that I would never drink the kool-aid again on a Fulmer team. This year I forgot that until yesterday.

What made this loss more frustrating than in the past is that it seemed this team might be different. There was the complete game against Cal. There was the comeback against Georgia. 2006 saw victories over Spurrier, Tedford, and Richt. It seemed natural that Tennessee would add Paterno (even if he was in the box) to that list and gain momentum for next year. Instead, we saw another bad performance by a Tennessee team on January 1st.

Next August, people will talk about how many starters we have returning. Next summer, magazines will probably pick Tennessee as a team to watch. Our quarterback or receiver (if he comes back) may end up on some Heisman watches. And next September I will begin to believe that we have a chance. But in the midst of the season, we will make some running back look like the second coming of Herschel Walker (see Tony Hunt) and some quarterback look like the next Joe Montana (see Anthony Morelli). And next January, I will remind myself to never again get my hopes up about a team coached by Phil Fulmer.

Well, thanks to Pearl, at least we can now say, "It's Basketball Time in Tennessee."

1 comment:

Jeff said...

At least Auburn won...