KNOXVILLE -- Thursday wasn't a particularly enjoyable night for University of Tennessee football players, coaches and fans.
The Volunteers were beaten in every conceivable way during the final 30 minutes, 30 seconds of their loss to 12th-ranked Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
A splendid stretch of play in the second quarter thrust the Vols into a 14-14 tie with the Hokies, but they surrendered the final 23 points and took a physical beating in the process.
"To tell you the truth, a lot of people just got gassed," junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "They took it to us there at the end, despite everybody out there giving their best effort.
"We gave it our all, but it wasn't good enough."
Thursday was strikingly similar to UT's 42-17 loss at Ole Miss on Nov. 14. The Vols started poorly, recovered to make things interesting but squandered a great third-quarter chance to score and got pummeled in the final period.
It's not difficult to see the common denominator. Injuries during the fall combined with double-digit roster defections last offseason made the Vols wafer thin in some spots, and the best two teams they played in the season's last two months annihilated them in the fourth quarter.
"It shows really quick, when we get tired or guys get banged up," said first-year UT head coach Lane Kiffin. "Once that happens, we get thin really quick, and that shows up. It worries me, and it worried me for a long time. When we go against our second-team defense in practice, it's scary.
"As soon as we get winded, there's not a lot of answers to go to. I thought our guys played with good effort, but we've got to go hit the road recruiting, because we've got a lot of spots to fill."
UT senior defensive tackle Wes Brown left the game in the first five plays with another leg injury. Senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy missed much of the first half while getting his injured wrist X-rayed. Junior defensive end Chris Walker missed time for health reasons, too.
The team's first two starting middle linebackers, juniors Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier -- watched helplessly from the sideline with torn ACLs.
The Vols couldn't sustain any rushing success against Virginia Tech defensive maestro Bud Foster. That nearly nullified UT's play-action passing game and allowed the Hokies to tee off on senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton. who sustained a concussion on the Vols' last offensive possession and left the Georgia Dome in a stretcher and neck brace for precautionary reasons.
"That was a good Virginia Tech team that's already built their program," UT senior tailback Montario Hardesty said. "It took years for those guys to get that point. ... Their seniors won 10 games every year they were there.
"We'll get there one day, with these coaches and our young guys. If we just keep on the right path, keep working hard and add a few pieces here and there, we'll be winning championships. I still feel like our team is definitely on the way up, and I feel like we laid a good foundation this year to try to get UT back to where UT is supposed to be."
Kiffin praised his seniors before leaving the postgame news conference.
"They'll always be a part of this process and what we've done here," Kiffin said. "We wanted to finish better for them, and I wish I would have been able to get them that and done a better job. But I told them that when we're playing in this same stadium for SEC championships, they'll be the guys standing on the sidelines with us, remembering they helped us start this."
Kiffin talked about recruiting repeatedly after Thursday's loss, and he and his staff of recruiters no doubt will spin the defeat as an opportunity instead of a negative for top-shelf talents across the country.
"We've got a lot to figure out, but it's the end of the year, and the best thing to figure out is to go get more players," Kiffin said. "That's what we're going to do as soon as the dead (recruiting) period ends, is go build up our roster and get better depth, so we don't have some of those issues."
Thompson and others also mentioned UT's spring-semester additions of junior college transfers and early-graduating high school seniors.
"We feel very good, because this was a building year, and we definitely started turning the program around from last year to this year," Thompson said. "We're probably going to get a good recruiting class, and we might have like 13 guys coming in for January, and we'll get those guys going in the program and see if they can help us have a good season next year."
As for immediate improvement, much of that will start with the 2009 team's juniors -- except All-America safety Eric Berry and any other potential NFL draft applicants.
"These seniors going out, they started building a championship program," tight end Luke Stocker said. "Next year I'll be a senior, and our senior group will take another step toward that, and we'll keep this program rolling in the right direction."
"We wanted to finish the season off with a win. This isn't what we wanted, obviously, but we did a lot of great things this season, and we can't look past that."
Select younger players, including free safety Janzen Jackson, will move from supporting to feature roles.
"I think we feel good about the team we have coming back," Jackson said. "We've lost a lot of talent with Eric and Rico and other seniors, and guys like Montario on the other side of the ball. But I feel like we'll be able to bounce back, because we've got good replacements.
"We came along pretty good this year. It took a lot of buying into the system, and hard work and dedication -- you know, all the things that go into making a great team. We were in play to do that, and the ball's still rolling."
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