September 20, 2008
Red zone disasters doom UT
Repeatedly, Tennessee's coaches have talked about games turning on but a handful of plays. Against Florida on Saturday afternoon, the Vols had 25 plays that could have yielded two touchdowns. Instead, the 14th and 25th plays in those sequences cemented their fourth-straight loss to the Gators -- and pushed Tennessee's margin of defeat in its last four games to 23.5 points per game.
"Football is a game of one play here, one play there," said UT offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. "Obviously we didn't make those plays today, and we had costly turnovers."
Indeed, the Vols first had a chance to slice into Florida's 17-0 lead on the heels of an eight-minute, 14-play march that rested the ball on the Gators' 1-yard line. Then, in shades of Tennessee-Georgia 2003, quarterback Jonathan Crompton had the football collide with fullback Kevin Cooper.
Gators defensive end Carlos Dunlap -- a former top target of the Vols' recruiting efforts -- pounced on the loose ball. After the game, Crompton wasn't sure what transpired but acknowledged the sequence of events was a damning blow for Tennessee's comeback efforts.
"Actually, I don't know exactly what happened.," said Crompton, who threw his fourth interception this season and has at least one pick in every career start or game in which he's played the majority of snaps. "I've got to get back and watch film and see. I don't know, it was just a bang-bang play and obviously we came up on the short end of it.
"Anytime you don't get points in the red zone, it hurts. Especially when you don't get points in the red zone. It hurt as an offense, but I think we bounced back. We're emotionally strong as an offense and a defense, too. We shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes."
Clawson said it looked like the offense's first failed voyage into the kryptonite-like orange zone was a case of the quarterback leaving the ball out -- a mistake that had caused a stoppage in practice earlier during camp.
"I believe what happened is that the ball hit the fullback," Clawson said. "That's one our base goal-line plays that we run it in practice. We had a situation with our second offense that we did that in practice and we made a big point of stopping practice and talking through seating the football because that's a play the fullback could have a guy in 'b' gap and we've got to make sure that we clear the fullback before we extend the ball.
"It's a base fundamental mistake, and it's my job to coach that and make sure it doesn't happen. It's a base play that we've got to execute and we didn't and it hurt us."
After Florida turned that mistake into a reluctant field goal, the Gators kicking only when a penalty made a fourth-down attempt impractical, Tennessee still nearly answered with a touchdown and momentum into the half. But for the third time in three games, the Vols had a crucial drive dissolve near or inside an opponent's 5-yard line. Moving to first-and-goal from the 2, the Vols picked up 1 yard total on first and second down.
Confusion pervaded the third-down huddle, when the clocked ticked from roughly 32 seconds to 16 before Crompton called timeout. An incomplete pass on third down was followed by Crompton's fourth interception of the season on fourth down.
It was during that time that head coach Phillip Fulmer said Crompton missed a call.
"We had one timeout left, and I had said to save it for the field goal if we had to kick it a field goal and we wasted too much time between a couple of plays," Fulmer said. "On the fourth down, Jon missed a signal."
The Gators didn't miss the opportunity to deny the Vols' scoring bid. Tennessee covered 132 yards on 25 plays and melted 12 minutes, 36 seconds from the clock before failing to score on either possession.
"Turn the ball over on your first drive and give them a cheap one and then you don't score two times inside the 5-yard line in the first half," Clawson said. "It's a much different football game. If we score those points, then we're down six points and we're coming out with maybe a chance to take the lead. But we didn't do it.
"There's a handful of plays, and we didn't execute the way we needed to."
And that, said senior guard Anthony Parker, totally changed Tennessee's outlook.
"It's a completely different ballgame," he said. "You come out calling different plays, you have a better feeling about yourself. The score is 20-14, you've got the ball coming out. It's a completely different game."
Eleven times in three games Tennessee has moved the ball inside an opponent's 20-yard line, but it has failed to score any points on three of those trips. The common thread? Three turnovers -- two of them seemingly unforced fumbles and one a forced-throw interception. Momentum killers, for sure.
"It all comes down to execution. When you get down to the 2- or 3-yard line, it's man on man," junior center Josh McNeil said. "You can't have fumbles or interceptions or missed blocks on the offensive line. Things like that can't happen. When you get down there in the SEC, it's a fight. You can't make big mistakes and that's what got us today. Huge mistakes.
"You have a great drive going, 12, 13 or 14 plays, and the more plays you run the more confidence you get and by the time you get down there I am thinking 'Oh yeah we are going to put this in the end zone and we are getting momentum back.' Then you have a turnover like that and it just deflates you."
Two turnovers. A few plays. And two big losses.
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