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November 5, 2006
Tennessee now looks to salvage season
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Suddenly, Erik Ainge's sprained right ankle appears the least of Phil Fulmer's worries.
Losing Ainge, the Southeastern Conference's leading passer, to a bum ankle figured to be a big problem for the Tennessee Volunteers - especially when facing the LSU defense which is ranked as the nation's best.
But who figured Jonathan Crompton, a redshirt freshman from a tiny town in North Carolina, would throw for 183 yards, two touchdown passes to Robert Meachem and almost throw a wrench into LSU's slim hopes of winning the Southeastern Conference's Western Division?
Crompton's 54-yard touchdown pass to Meachem with 7:29 remaining staked the No. 8 Volunteers to a 24-21 lead their defense was unable to protect.
"I'm really proud of Jonathan Crompton," Fulmer said after the loss which eliminated Tennessee from contention for the SEC championship. "He showed a lot of poise in a situation that's about as tough as you could be put in against the No. 1 defense in the country.
"Jonathan's going to be a heck of a quarterback. He'll be a really fine football player with more time and experience. I couldn't have asked for more of him."
A couple of weeks ago Ainge was being praised as a Heisman Trophy contender, but he could only play three series against LSU before re-injuring his ankle when sacked by the Tigers' Glenn Dorsey. His status for next week's game against Arkansas will surely be as uncertain as it was last week.
But Crompton proved more than just an adequate crutch, and his passing and running – he scrambled for 22 yards – should allow Fulmer the opportunity to address what may have become more pressing issues for the Volunteers.
He must find a way to repair his team's damaged run defense and perhaps its wounded psyche.
Even during the Volunteers' 5-6 debacle a year ago, Tennessee's run defense still only allowed an average of 82.5 yards per game to rank second in the nation. But the entire front seven from that unit is gone and their replacements just haven't been as good.
The Volunteers allowed LSU 231 yards rushing. Only Kentucky has surrendered more ground yardage to the Tigers this season.
Some of those yards were a result of scrambles by quarterback JaMarcus Russell and 18 came on a fake punt, but Jacob Hester and Trindon Holliday both averaged 8.7 yards per carry. Those are ominous statistics with Arkansas, the SEC's best running team, looming.
The loss to LSU combined with Florida's victory over Vanderbilt ended Tennessee's SEC championship aspirations.
Now, Fulmer must convince the Volunteers (7-2, 3-2), who are basically five points and two plays away from being in the national championship hunt, that the season still matters.
"Nothing's changed," Fulmer said. "We're going to coach them just as hard, and we expect them to respond just as well as they have all season long.
"This team still has a chance to have a very fine season, and from where everyone expected us to be we've done quite well.
"It hurts a lot," he said after the LSU loss. "We can allow it to hurt (Sunday). Then we need to get ready to go to Arkansas and get ready to play that game."
No doubt about that. After last season's struggles, Tennessee wasn't expected to be a major factor in the SEC race. But the Volunteers upset California in the season-opener and a one-point loss to Florida was the only blemish on their record prior to Saturday.
But the next three games will determine how this season will be viewed and whether the Vols will go to a respectable bowl game or an obscure one.
The road isn't easy, either. Arkansas leads the SEC West. After the Hogs, Tennessee faces Vanderbilt and Kentucky, not exactly pushovers, as the Georgia Bulldogs can attest. The Vols can't waste time thinking about how close they came to playing for a championship.
"Our biggest battle now is coming back from this," Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell said.
Maybe the Volunteers will rebound and play the rest of their games with the same interest and intensity they've shown all season.
At this point, however, that's as unpredictable as a backup quarterback thrust into action.