Introducing "Marching Orders From the General": Tennessee vs. Florida

lawvol gate21.netSenior Analyst ISeptember 22, 2008

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General Robert R. Neyland is perhaps the single most important person in the evolution of Tennessee Football.  His legacy is forever intertwined with the university, the teams, and the fans.  In recognition of his immeasurable contribution, I am pleased to introduce a new feature here at the Gate, “Marching Orders From the General.”  Without further adieu, here is the first installment:

Okay, I have had my day to be negative—to brood and stew over the Tennessee Volunteers‘ loss to the Florida Gators.

It’s now time to be constructive, to analyze, and to look ahead. I know that a lot of the members of the Orange Nation are ready to write this season off.  I am not.  Be that as it may, I cannot ignore what  I witnessed at Neyland Stadium this past weekend.  I have a feeling that, as MoonDog noted, General Neyland would have been sick to his stomach over the Vols performance.

The General, however, was accustomed to adversity, and understood that sometimes you have to modify your plan to make sure that you attain your goal.  Complaining accomplishes nothing—the only thing that matters is what you do going forward.

One of the grand traditions of the Tennessee football program is the constant re-commitment of the team to General Neyland’s 7 Game Maxims. These are the foundation upon which the entire ethos of the program are based. Using these fundamental concepts as a lens, let’s look at how the Vols did this weekend, and what they need to do going forward to achieve the level of excellence that the General called for both on the playing field and the battlefield.

Maxim 1: “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.

The inability of the Vols to honor this truth is ultimately what led to their defeat…

Ball Protection

Tennessee’s three turnovers—two of which came inside the 3-yard line—absolutely killed the Vols on offense.  One of these came in the form of an interception, the other two in the form of fumbles.

The first fumble (1st Quarter 8:55, on the Tennessee 23), this was credited as a fumble by Montario Hardesty, which is accurate.  Hardesty should have been able to hold onto the 4-yard pass from Crompton, and picked up a gain.  The fact remains, however, that Hardesty was in double-coverage with a safety collapsing quickly.  The pass—which came on 3rd and 15 and would have done little to move the ball toward the 1st Down—was floated to a clearly off-balance Hardesty and effectively left him strung-out.  This pass invited a fumble-jarring hit, which it received.  While I am not exonerating Hardesty, Crompton should have simply thrown the ball away.

The second fumble (3rd Quarter 13:00, on the Florida 2) was simply a bad exchange, but not in the traditional sense.  This was not the tailback failing to get a handle on the ball when receiving the handoff.  This was the ball hitting the fullback in the hip as the quarterback rolled to his right—in other words, the quarterback didn’t have a handle on the ball after the snap, and thus had the ball in an unprotected position, resulting in a fumble.  Those things happen from time to time, but you cannot let them happen at critical turning-point moments in the game.  It is a question of focus, and you must be focused when you are trying to push in a score.

The interception (2nd Quarter 00:02, on the Florida 2) in the endzone  immediately before halftime was simply a bad throw into coverage, there really isn’t anything else to be said.  Jonathan Crompton’s willingness to heave the ball into 2 or 3-man press coverage has become as worrying as it has routine.  Jonathan Compton must start making better decisions, and start looking to other receivers, tuck and run, or throw the ball away.  Crompton cannot continue to to simply throw the ball into the crowd and hope that the receiver makes a play.  I will be the first to admit that there are times when this sort of approach can work—as it did for Crompton versus LSU in 2006, or as it did for Tee Martin versus pretty much anyone when Peerless Price was the receiver—but those are the exception, not the rule.  Crompton must begin to look for other outlets and if none exists, throw the ball away.

Crompton's ill-fated pass into the endzone as seen from Sec. Y7

That said, Tennessee should have scored on one of the preceding three plays (all of which occurred inside the Florida 5-yard line), which would have prevented the pass ever being thrown.

Clock Management

Tennessee’s final three offensive plays of the first half were one of the worst examples of clock management that Tennessee has shown in a very long time.  With 1:13 to go in the half, Tennessee had the ball on the Florida 5-yard line—it was Tennessee’s chance to potentially get itself back in the ballgame.  At that point, the score was 20-0.  20-7 would have given the Vols a chance to enter the locker room with momentum and a chance to comeback in the second half.  What ensued was a play calling disaster. With 30 seconds remaining in the half, Tennessee had the ball on the 2-yard line, and still had one timeout.  Rather than immediately stop the clock, however, the Vols let 14 seconds tick off of the clock before signaling the timeout.  I was sitting approximately 50 feet from this display in Section Y7.  With 29 ticks remaining, I clearly saw Crompton make a time out signal toward the referee, but the referee was screened and could not see Crompton.  No whistle blew, and the clock continued to run.  For the next 14 seconds neither Crompton, one of his teammates, nor the coaching staff called a timeout.  In then end the Vols finally stopped the clock with 16 seconds remaining.  This is unbelievable.

The old adage is that “you play until the whistle is blown.”  That is just as true in timeout-calling as it is in downfield blocking.  Someone, whether player or coach, should have had their wits about them enough to reach out grab the ref and make the timeout signal.  No one did.  With those seconds gone, Tennessee had almost no time left with which to try and punch the ball into the endzone.  When they did get it in the endzone, it was an interception.

With that interception, the game was over…

The mental game is just as important as the physical side of the game.   Tennessee simply did not have their heads in the game on offense.

Maxim 2: “Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way—SCORE.

Well, to a large degree, there were few breaks to be had in the game.  The bulk of those breaks came in the form of Florida capitalizing on Tennessee’s errors.  That said, there were several times when key players made big plays which—for the briefest of moments—gave the Orange and White a chance to gain the upper hand.  One good example was Dennis Rogan’s 43 yard runback on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Another was the first quarter defensive stop on the Tennessee 22-yard line which led to a Florida field goal, but prevented a touchdown.  These two breaks—along with numerous other small swings in the game–led to nothing for the Vols.

Though the opportunities were real, the Vols simply never took advantage of them…

Maxim 3: “If at first the game—or the breaks—go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam.

When it comes to effort, there are actually a few bright spots…

Rico McCoy and Eric Berry both gave a supreme effort.  There is nothing more that this tandem could have done to try and push the Vols to victory.  Even late in the fourth quarter, they were both running at full speed and giving 100% effort on every single play.  I never once saw them let up or slow down.  They had a combined 18 tackles (including a sack for Berry).  In all honesty, I’d have to say that the defensive unit as a whole left everything on the field.  After stumbling on the opening drive by Florida, and allowing a touchdown, I felt that the defense came to play.  They were hardly perfect—especially when it came to penalties—but they tried their hardest and game their all for Tennessee.  There was no quit in this unit.

The offense, while not as marked as the defense, also gave great effort.  In particular, Jonathan Crompton exhibited more drive and grit than I have seen from him this year.  He refused to give up, despite all of the miscues, bobbles, and mistakes.  This was best exemplified by Crompton’s unwillingness to slide late in the game when fronted by a Florida defender.  Rather than make the safe play, Crompton lowered his head and ran straight at him.  It was probably not the smartest decision on his part, given the fact he was completely flat-backed, but his heart was obviously still in it.

The coaching staff obviously wanted this game—for reasons which I will go into in greater detail in a follow-up post to this one.  Their effort during the game was admirable.  I saw more fire on the sidelines from the coaches than I have seen in years past.  That said, coaching is one area where your best effort can sometimes be demonstrated by not needing to be animated or excited.

The fans are also a part of this analysis.  I will give the fans a split-analysis in this area.  At the start of the game, regardless of what they may have thought the likely outcome of the game might be, the fans were ready to go.  When the “T” opened and the players came out on the field it was white-noise and hysteria.  That held true throughout the first quarter.  After Tennessee’s repeated self-destruction on offense, however, the fans went cold; many went home.  I am not going to criticize the fans for their decisions in this regard, though I want to on some level.  I travel a long way to the games, and it costs a great deal of money to do so.  I stayed until the last second and watched the Vols play to the end.  Does that make me a better fan?  Probably not.  Does it give me the right to criticize those who left early?  Probably so.  As a personal matter, I strongly believe that if you don’t have the guts and composure to stay to the end and take the cheers of your opponent, then you don’t have the right to bask in the glory when your team wins.  The fact of the matter is, however, I understand their frustrations.

If, as the scoreboard says

If, as the scoreboard says, "This is Tennessee Football," then the empty seats in the stands speak of serious problems.

On a more basic level, however, as both HSH and I have said in the last few days, if you are going to boo your own players, then just stay home.  The players on the team do not need your validation to prove that they work hard and make sacrifices to be the best that they can be.  They also don’t need your booing when they fall short of the goal they strive for.  Booing the coaching staff, or the decision to punt rather than go for it on fourth down is one thing, booing the players is another.  I understand your frustrations, but just like the team on the field, if you cannot retain your composure and lose with some integrity and class then do not come to the game.  If you cannot act like a good sport, then there is no place for you in the stadium—no matter what team you follow.  Period.

If you booed the team this past weekend, you should be ashamed of yourself…

Maxim 4: “Protect our kickers, our quarterback, our lead, and our ball game.

Well, in this regard the Vols were decent, not outstanding, but decent.  The offensive live really never created much in terms of a push off the line for the running backs, and the penalties for false starts and holding were particularly costly.  Still, the line did a pretty good job of protecting Crompton.  The same would be true for the kick protection.  They were average, but if the teams gels and makes the scores, then it is probably enough to win.

As for protecting the ball game, well there really is not much that can be said there…

Maxim 5: “Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue, and gang tackle… for this is the WINNING EDGE.

As I said above under the Third Maxim, I was happy with the defense.  Could they have done some things better?  Absolutely.  Is there room to improve?  You better believe it.

Did the defense do enough to win?  You’re damn right they did, just as they did versus UCLA.

Until the offense finds itself, I am not going to be overly critical of a defense that has fought as hard as any I’ve seen in a while.

Maxim 6: “Press the kicking game.  Here is where the breaks are made.

Once again, the General’s insight is telling.  Florida’s Brandon James returned the opening kickoff 52 yards.  Last year he ran a kick back for a touchdown only to have it negated by a penalty.  Ignoring this experience, and James’ ability to be a gamebreaker, the Vols kick it back to him on the very next series setting up a 78 yard run back for a touchdown.  You don’t have to be a genius to realize that you can kick it away from him, as Florida did by kicking it to Brandon Warren in the third quarter.

Still, the kick coverage team showed a lack of cohesiveness in over-pursuing, blocking one another, and failing to contain the run backs.

While Dennis Rogan did his best to make things happen on Tennessee’s kick returns, costly penalties killed the momentum he earned with his speed and field awareness.

Maxim 7: “Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

As I said under the Third Maxim, both the offense and the defense did everything they could in terms of effort.  The fact of the matter was, however, there was never any real “fight” put to Florida.  In the end, the Vols put on one of the worst displays I have seen in Neyland Stadium in a very long time.  I would put this game in the same class as the 1996 loss to Memphis at the Liberty Bowl and the 1994 loss to the Gators in Knoxville.  The difference is that in 1994, the Vols had a true-freshman quarterback who never expected to be playing that early in the season, whie the ‘94 Gators were absolute terrors.  In 1996, the Vols simply had a bad game versus a motivated opponent—though inexcusable–that team was otherwise solid across the board.

This game was one the Vols were “supposed” to lose.  It was not one where they were supposed to get blown-out.  I realize that there is a new quarterback calling the signals this year, but he is a fourth-year junior who had considerable experience in 2006.  This is not an inexperienced team which lacks a fundamental understanding of what it is supposed to do in game situations.

I will be going into some other thoughts on this game and the big picture for Tennessee in the next day or so, but until then, I will sum up my thoughts with this:

There was no commander to be found on the field this weekend, and the troops had no leader…

My, how we could have used a little help from the General.

– Go Figure …Email lawvol

Gate 21 Tags: College Football, Florida Gators, Football, Gate 21, Great Punkin, Jonathan Crompton, Knoxville, Marching Orders From the General, Montario Hardesty, Orange Nation, Robert Neyland, SEC, SEC Football, Tennessee Football, Tennessee Vols, Tennessee Volunteers, University of Tennessee, Vols

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