Wiedmer: Auburn was just one player better than the Vols

Wiedmer: Auburn was just one player better than the Vols

October 4th, 2009 by Mark Wiedmer in Blogsutugautc

KNOXVILLE -- You can't say Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin doesn't want to win. With Saturday's third quarter against Auburn less than three minutes from ending, his Volunteers down 10 and facing a fourth-and-1 on their own 29-yard line, Kiffin went for it.

It is important to note that UT was 1-for-10 on third-down conversions at that moment, hardly a statistic to build confidence.

Moreover, failing to convert this first down would all but officially deliver Auburn its fifth straight win against the Vols.

But Kiffin didn't care. The punt was out, the gamble was on. Beyond that, he called for his embattled, beleaguered quarterback Jonathan Crompton to complete a rollout pass for the first down.

Considering that Crompton had misfired on 14 of his first 20 passes, most of the 102,941 inside Neyland Stadium probably equated this to waving the white flag of surrender.

But this time Crompton delivered the ball to tight end Luke Stocker, who made the first down, briefly delaying the eventual 26-22 loss to the Tigers.

Still, this was a gutty call at a difficult time.

The question now becomes when Kiffin will be willing to make the easy call of benching Crompton in favor of Nick Stephens, Nu'Keese Richardson or Smokey the mascot.

This isn't to say that any other UT quarterback could have beaten Florida three weeks ago or Auburn on this occasion. This also isn't to say that Crompton alone is the reason for UT's 2-3 start and 0-2 SEC record.

No single player wins or loses in the SEC, though Tim Tebow might seriously test that argument.

Maybe it isn't all Crompton's fault. Maybe the receivers run the wrong routes. Maybe the line couldn't pass-block a lawn statue. Maybe all he needs is a little love to turn this thing around.

But love alone won't cure the pass Crompton threw into the side of Quintin Hancock's helmet when he wasn't expecting the ball. Or the fumbled snap. Or when he tripped pulling away from center at the start of the second half. Or all the times he threw the ball too soon after hearing footsteps that weren't as close as he believed they were.

Both Auburn's offense and Tennessee's defense combined to keep this one close. For the first time all season the Tigers proved much more adept at piling up yardage than points. And, as always, the Big Orange D proved saltier than seawater.

Yet keeping a game close only goes so far. At some point a team of Tennessee's tradition, a team with a 100,000-seat stadium and a $2 million coach must win. And maybe these Vols will. Maybe they'll even win with Crompton, who had moments of high competency against the Tigers, including a marvelous toss to Hancock with just under six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Vols down by 10 and driving.

Suddenly, Crompton was hitting everything, Or at least making sure he didn't hit the enemy in the hands.

It was what everyone had expected to see from him the past two seasons, as he somehow held the starting job without fulfilling that promise.

But even that fourth-quarter drive ultimately resulted in a field goal rather than a touchdown and the Vols still behind by seven. His last-play touchdown pass to Denarius Moore later got them within 26-22, too little too late.

In many ways it was the perfect night for football. A full moon overhead. Temperature in the 60s. A slight breeze wafting in from the south.

Yet for those in Tennessee orange it nevertheless slipped into a recurring nightmare: The other team had a quarterback capable of winning. UT did not.