September 28, 2008

Short field lengthens O's struggles

AUBURN, Ala. -- In Tennessee's playbook, they are called "must-score" plays, and they are supposed to be the bedrock of the Volunteers' offense when they, as the name transparently suggests, most need points.

Yet don't saddle this loss -- Tennessee's third with summer just dead a week -- on a failed two-point conversion that never should have been the difference in the game.

The Vols offense spent more time in Auburn territory on Saturday than Sherman in Georgia, but it was mostly for naught in an unsettling 14-12 loss. Aside from a nine-play, 37-yard drive that Montario Hardesty capped with his fourth rushing touchdown of the season in the third quarter, Tennessee's offense faltered on a short field that could have been turned into a comfortable lead and season-sustaining win. The Vols had possessions start at Auburn's 44-, 37-, 38- and 46-yard lines but scored only once.

On a day in which the UT defense yielded just seven points and 226 yards despite being forced onto the field for nearly 33 minutes, it wasn't nearly good enough.

"I thought we were a first down away from kicking a field goal and winning the ballgame," said first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. "That's all we had to do. Our defense, Coach Chavis and the defensive staff and defensive players, really played a well football game. More than well enough for us to win. We didn't do the job on offense."

The Vols closed the contest with three-and-out possessions on five of its final six chances, including the last four. Tennessee's final 12 offensive snaps -- which came either near midfield or in Auburn territory -- netted just 12 total yards and elapsed only 5 minutes, 8 seconds off the game clock.

"I'm past pissed off," said wideout Gerald Jones, a rare bright spot on the UT offense with 107 all-purpose yards. "That's a I can say about it."

Jones' frustrations were easily understood. Repeatedly the sophomore from Oklahoma set up the Vols with good field position, including a 40-yarder that set up the offense at Auburn's 38-yard line. Working at quarterback, Jones ran for no gain and had a screen pass bounce off the hands of Lucas Taylor. On third down quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who did not complete a pass over the final 22 minutes of game clock, lost 2 yards on a quarterback draw, and the Vols punted.

It was a snapshot of the Tennessee offense -- not just in this game but this season. In their opener at UCLA, the Vols got a dazzling return from Jones to the Bruins' 26-yard line. It backtracked 12 yards over the next three plays and pushed itself out of field goal range.

"When we play like we did today, it's hard to feel like you're really close," Clawson said. "We certainly had some opportunities to make plays, and we didn't. Again, you watch the film and find out exactly why it happened. But it's very disappointing and one thing you do is put your bootstraps on, go back to work and work like crazy to fix it. That's the only option we have."

While the Vols had some modest success running the football, finishing with 124 net yards on the ground, they were largely ineffective on the ground in the second half when Auburn's defense crept closer to the line of scrimmage. In the opening two quarters, Tennessee tailbacks only had two carries of 2 yards or less. That number ballooned to eight in the second half, which didn't help the Vols on second and third downs. UT converted just 4 of 16 third-down conversions -- a number slightly worse than their season conversion rate of 35 percent (20 of 57).

"In the second half the defense gave us plenty of field position and opportunities -- along with the punts and the punt returns -- to make yards. We didn't get anything out of it," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We kind of ran the gamut with the different things we tried. But to play offense you've got to execute. That's first and foremost."
Fundamental execution of base plays has doomed the Vols in their three losses. Following three turnovers inside opponents' 5-yard lines entering Saturday's game, Tennessee responded with a turnover inside its own 5-yard line. Crompton and Arian Foster botched a second-quarter handoff that Auburn's Jake Ricks recovered in the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning score.

"That was the frustration of it," Clawson said. "Our defense kept going out there and getting the job done and getting the job done. And we let them down. That's on me."

For the season Tennessee's offense now ranks dead-last in the SEC in passing efficiency (96.4, the only team under 100), 11th in scoring offense (19.2), 11th in first downs and 10th in third-down conversion rate.

All of that has Clawson scrambling for an answer.

"It got to a point where Auburn just loaded up the box, pressured us and gave us some great looks to throw it and we didn't take advantage of it at all," Clawson said. "It's challenging. You're looking up and down your game sheet and trying to find a way. I went up and down that sheet three times, tried everything that we had prepared and certainly didn't dial up a good one."

Time's running out on this season for the Vols' offense to get dialed in.

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