September 13, 2008

Amidst mistakes, Vols also find hope

Gerald Jones wasn't the primary target. In fact, he wasn't supposed to be the guy Jonathan Crompton found for Tennessee's first home touchdown in 2008.

But Crompton improvised, Jones broke free and perhaps nothing from their Neyland Stadium debut better offers that four-letter word -- hope, not hype -- for the Vols entering Florida week.

"I was just a decoy; I was just supposed to get the defender out of the way," said Jones, who notched his first career two-touchdown game. "Crompton was actually supposed to throw it to the fullback. He saw me late in the end zone and he made a great throw and I just made a play on it."

That first-quarter play, which was followed barely three minutes later with another Crompton-to-Jones touchdown, was a snapshot of Tennessee's Saturday afternoon inside a less-than-capacity Neyland Stadium. It all developed kind of slowly but turned out all right in a 35-3 stroll past visiting UAB.
Gradually -- sometimes ploddingly against the Blazers -- Tennessee offered hope for this week's showdown against perennial nemesis Florida. When it's been two weeks since your last game and the UCLA team you lost to is getting chased out of BYU's stadium like caffeine, you take silver linings where you can get them. Even those mixed with doses of perspective.

"We can, we must and we will play better as we go along," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We're the right kind of team, and we listen and we prepare. Right after the game, we've completely turned our attention to what everybody wanted to talk about during the week -- and that's Florida. We're looking forward to the preparation for that."

And Tennessee, though it oftentimes was with 6-plus yards per rush and a blanket of humidity, showed progress against the Blazers even as the game unfolded. By Fulmer's own admission, Tennessee's offense either scored -- eight plays, 110 yards and two touchdowns in a 210-second, first-quarter span -- or punted in the first half.
With a renewed commitment to "pounding the rock" in the second half, the Vols amassed 210 of their 266 rushing yards and abused the Blazers' fatigued defense for nearly 20 minutes.

"We're starting to establish some offensive identity, and I think there are some core plays we're starting to get good at," said offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. "We're starting to find our fastball, and now we've got to develop the other pitches we're going to need when you go against good defenses. I have no illusion that we're going to be able to do this against Florida. They're going to be a lot more competitive, and we've got to be a lot more multi-dimensional. It's nice if you can do that, but I think at some point you've got to get over top of people too.

"Our big plays today were, we made guys miss and that's encouraging, but the better the team the harder it is to make those plays."

Arian Foster rushed 12 times for 101 yards, and Lennon Creer jolted the crowd from a general haze with an electrifying 45-yard run. Crompton finished 19 of 31, his first game with a completion percentage above 50 percent, for 240 yards, with the two touchdowns and just as many interceptions.

The Waynesville, N.C., junior likewise acknowledged the good and the bad of the offense's 548-yard afternoon.

"I'll be in more of a rhythm next week," he said. "That's just how it goes. You get more comfortable as you go."

Part of that at-ease feeling surely stems from both a second game in Clawson's system and a simplified approach that Clawson said was necessary to accelerate the learning curve.

"Just to make sure that we're playing full speed and there's no uncertainty with what guys had to do," Clawson said. "You have to gameplan for all those what ifs. We tried to maybe have guys, we tried to narrow down and have more contingency plans this week."

Yet no one is getting too cozy on the Vols' sidelines. There remain far too many mistakes: Crompton's two interceptions, eight more penalties, mediocre punting and a 24-minute scoring draught in the game's midsection.

Clawson indicated he will maintain a straightforward approach.

"I take every game the same," Clawson said. "You want to win the next week. I'm sure people are saying, 'Geez, I wonder if they're looking ahead to Florida?' Not once this week did I mention Florida.
"After our performance at UCLA, we had to win this game. And the reward for winning a game is that the next game has more significance to it."

Despite all those mistakes against the Blazers, Florida Week also now features more hope.

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