September 27, 2008

Open it up; no other choice

AUBURN, Ala. -- Open it up. The playbook? Forget that. Dave Clawson's offense sees more formations die on its notebook binders each week than a Kansas City slaughterhouse.

Open up the starting quarterback competition. Do it now, or risk losing the team. Do it now, or risk jobs. Fair or not, that's the football graveyard confronting Tennessee's coaches in the mournful hours of their third loss, this one a 14-12 defeat Saturday at Auburn. If an inexcusable 27-24 overtime loss at UCLA wasn't warning enough and a methodical, 30-6 dismantling at home last week by Florida not ample reinforcement, this was.

If Vanderbilt sitting alone atop the SEC Eastern Division and Duke resting its record at the exact opposite of Tennessee's 1-3 mark -- 3-1 -- wasn't enough, this performance was.

Open it up.

"It is something that we have to look at in every position in the field," said UT head coach Phillip Fulmer, who's steering a listless 1-3 ship for the first time since 1994. "Tomorrow, as the week goes on, we will break down film. Eight-for-24 (passing) is unacceptable. We need to be sure that he (Crompton) is finding the receivers and getting the ball to the people who make plays for us."

Open up the starting quarterback competition. Stop paying lip service to Nick Stephens and B.J. Coleman in their backup battle to Jonathan Crompton. Give them a chance to take meaningful snaps -- in practice and next Saturday against Northern Illinois. Do it now, or risk completely losing a team clinging together right now like hot fuzz on spandex.

A sold-out Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd of 87,451 watched Tennessee's Crompton-led offense four times begin second-half possessions on Auburn's side of the 50-yard line. Three of the four possessions resulted in punts.

"It was tough. Tough times come and go," said Crompton, who finished 8-for-23 for a paltry 67 yards. "This is obviously one of the tough times. We're going to get back and correct it, just like we always do here. Get back, watch film and correct it and go from there."

One correction would be a change at quarterback, if for no other reason than it's hard to imagine things possibly could get worse. On seven second-half possessions Tennessee's offense never started inside of its 35-yard line. Six of those possessions lasted just four plays or less. Five of them didn't take 100 seconds off the clock.

All of that inefficiency was enough, both Fulmer and Clawson said after the game, to at least consider a quarterback switch midway through this contest.

"We discussed it briefly during the game and decided against it," said Clawson, who indicated Stephens would have been that quarterback. "Jonathan made that really good run on third down that got us the first down, and we just stuck with him. I don't want to get into it. We talked about it briefly and decided not to do it."

Crompton sustained the Vols' lone touchdown drive with an impressive 15-yard run on third-and-14. But he completed his last pass with seven minutes to play. In the third quarter. The stretch performance in this game for the junior from Waynesville, N.C., was all too reminiscent of his season-opening effort at UCLA, when he went 21 second-half minutes without a completion. So how did Crompton explain his 34.8 percent completion percentage? A performance that featured multiple batted down balls and no less than four instances where Sarah Palin's home was closer to Russia than Crompton's passes were to his receivers?

Q: Jonathan, you were 8 of 23 today and didn't have a completion in the fourth quarter. Do you feel like you were on the same page as your receivers?

"Like I just said, tough times come and go," Crompton said.

The tough times -- inexplicable, fundamental turnovers and borderline ineptitude -- are lingering far too long for the Vols' offense. For the season Crompton is now 64 of 123 for 658 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. For his career Crompton now is (38 of 78) 102 of 201 with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. In three games against BCS-level foes, the Vols' offense has mustered 35 points.

"We'll look at it. Obviously we're always trying to put the best players that give us the best chance to be successful on the field regardless of their class or their experience level," Fulmer said of opening the quarterback competition. "Jonathan has been the guy we felt gave us the best chance. It may be that way on Monday, it may not. We'll see."

Of course, these could just be passing -- granted, poor choice of words -- times.

"Tough times come and go," Crompton said.

Indeed. So, too, do starting quarterbacks.

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