You really have to wonder what happened in the Rose Bowl locker rooms at halftime of last Monday’s Tennessee-UCLA game.
The Volunteers knew they could run the ball with Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty behind a solid offensive line. They also knew UCLA’s quarterback, Kevin Craft, could not throw the ball more than 15 yards without Tennessee’s band playing. Every time Craft lifted his arm to throw, the Pride of the Southland lifted their instruments simultaneously.
And that’s what season openers are for — answering all those questions we talk about incessantly during the lengthy college football offseason. Tennessee’s secondary really did look dominant. The running game produced against a talented UCLA front seven.
Then the second half happened, and now Volunteers fans are spending this off week asking more questions than Jeopardy contestants. Here are five lingering questions as they agonize through the bye week. (But it could be worse, Tennessee fans. You could be Steve Spurrier and South Carolina: 1-6 in your last seven games with two losses to Vanderbilt.)
1. Why not run the ball more?
The Vols averaged 5.2 yards per rush and still made a first-year starter throw the ball 41 times. Huh. I thought color analyst Todd Blackledge made a lot of sense in the third quarter when he said (I’m paraphrasing), “This is where Tennessee can run the ball and wear UCLA down.”
Indeed, the Vols rushed for 64 yards on seven carries in the third quarter. They also threw the ball seven times, completing two.
2. Why not move quarterback Jonathan Crompton around some?
Tennessee didn’t handle UCLA’s twists up front very well at all. And Crompton was simply not in sync with his receivers and couldn’t establish any rhythm in the pocket. With Erik Ainge last season, it was snap-drop-throw. Of course, Ainge was a senior.
An uncertain Crompton made him an easy target for the Bruins. Moving Crompton around would give him more time to throw and force the Bruins to adjust their blitzes.
“We will definitely move Jonathan around more than we did in the last game,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said Wednesday.
3. Why let UCLA continue to throw short passes?
I can’t imagine this scene in the UCLA locker room at halftime:
Craft: Coach, what should I do? I’m a mess. Tennessee’s defensive backs are calling, “Mine!” every time I step back to pass.
Rick Neuheisel: Deep balls. More deep balls.
Look, the Vols’ Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley might be the best safety combination in the entire country. I think they could handle Craft throwing a post route. Making the corners play press coverage isn’t that big of a risk with Berry and Morley behind you. Maybe the linebackers were out of position, I don’t know.
“Looking back, we probably should have gotten up in there and challenged them a bit more,” Fulmer said.
4. Oh my gosh, is Tennessee going to start conference play 0-3?
Actually, the Vols could start 0-3 — the SEC slate starts with Florida, at Auburn, at Georgia — and still be a pretty good team. Let’s face it: If Foster hadn’t fumbled inside the UCLA 10, Tennessee probably would’ve won Monday. Berry and Morley played outstanding. The Foster/Hardesty combination should wear down opponents if given the chance.
I don’t think a pretty miserable game at UCLA when the Vols could have played some hapless Football Championship Subdivision team makes them losers for the rest of the season. The Vols learned a lot more about themselves than Georgia or Auburn. They’ll be OK.
5. Did Fulmer get outcoached by Neuheisel?
Yes. Yes he did.
To be fair, Fulmer was working with an offensive coordinator coaching his first I-A game and a new quarterback. And you’ll hear criticism about Neuheisel’s ethics, ability to follow the rules and his Final Four picks for the office pool, but no one will ever say he’s a bad coach. He’s a very, very good coach, which is why UCLA hired him although he’s on more probation than Adam Jones.
I also think Fulmer is a very good coach. But the Vols had no answers for UCLA’s blitzes, no answers for UCLA’s short passing game, no answers for Crompton’s lack of rhythm. And that’s what this entire week has been like for Tennessee fans: lots of questions and no answers at all.