Monday, September 03, 2007

Chattanooga Times Free Press: UT suffers a strange defeat in a strange environment

Mark Wiedmer

BERKELEY, Ca. -- Strange. How else to explain Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer electing to receive the opening kickoff in Saturday night's 45-31 loss to California? Or the touchdown the Vols couldn't punch home after getting a first-and-goal three yards from the goal early in the third period? Or the continued ineptness of the running game, which accounted for but 36 net yards in the opening half and but 111 for the game? Or the Pac 10 officiating crew, who certainly made a strange call in the game's first three minutes, when they ruled an apparent Erik Ainge incompletion as a fumble, a fumble that Cal returned 44 yards for the first points of the game.  Strange. Very strange. Maybe not as strange as Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32, but strange nonetheless.  Not that this wasn't a strange environment the Big Orange Nation found itself in. Protesters minus clothes were living in trees outside Memorial Stadium, fighting to save a grove of oaks and redwoods the university wishes to cut down to build an athletic complex.

We all know that no Southeastern Conference school, its students or fans would ever let a few overgrown stalks of wood get in the way of an athletic arms races with its conference brothers.  There was also the nettlesome noise from all those supposedly laidback Californians. They may hug trees and lug protest signs and embrace tie-dyed fabric with the reverence most of us reserve for the Stars and Stripes, but for much of this game they were determined to make their 72,000-seat stadium sound every bit as loud as Neyland Stadium's 106,000 fans sounded a year ago against the Bears in Knoxville.

So no matter how much most of us figured the Bears were too soft and too small to greatly change the outcome after last year's 35-18 loss, they spent most of the first three quarters loudly disproving that theory. And when the Vols finally appeared to have reversed their fortunes, clawing back to within 38-31 early in the final period, Cal pumped up the volume one more time, zipping down field the with the greatest of ease for the final margin. Of course, any mention of this result must include praise to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton and Fulmer for agreeing to play this two-game series with Cal. It was the only game staged this weekend involving two ranked teams from the same division, since Appy State, of course, is ranked No. 1 in the poll formerly known as I-AA. Just as Cal wrecked its BCS hopes with last year's loss at Knoxville, the Vols may have undone their postseason dreams with this defeat. Yes, there's a lot of football left to play, but one of those games is 13 days away at Florida. As for the rest of the league, everyone other than Tennessee and Mississippi State -- which lost to league brother LSU on Thursday night -- won. So good as Cal may be, there's certainly no certainty that the Bears are the best team UT will face all year.

What is certain is that good as Cal may be, the Vols remain a work in progress for another autumn, their defense flawed and their offense unreliable. They surrendered 471 yards of Cal offense and often looked confused and overmatched against roughly the same offense they destroyed last season in Knoxville. Nor can UT blame much of this setback on Erik Ainge's broken right pinky. The senior may have been the lone bright spot, hitting 32 of 47 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Everyone else had good moments and bad moments, which is often expected in openers but rarely successful when playing the No. 12 team in the country on its home turf. And as if everything else hadn't felt a little bit odd and funny and weird, Fulmer elected to punt with 1:36 to play, despite still trailing by but 14. Obviously a win was a long shot. But punting ensured defeat. A strange end to a strange evening in a strange place. Just not quite so strange as Appy 34, Michigan 32.


Anonymous said...

And they wonder why some Californians consider the state of Tennessee to be full if ignorant hicks. And this man is a journalist! An article so wrought with errors and judgment that i can't imagine he has an editor.

Anonymous said...

The replay CLEARLY showed that Ainge's pass went BACK. So even IF his arm was moving forward (which it wasn't) the pass was a lateral and fair game for anyone to recover.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come now. The article wasn't *that* bad. And it is from the Chattanooga Times Free Press... like we don't have any rag magazines out here.

The bit about the "few overgrown stalks of wood" made me laugh.

Agree that the play was clearly a fumble. Ainge became a rubber band and, if you call the forard whip of his recoiling arm an intentional pass, the pass went backwards, which would have been a lateral.

Just glad they didn't call this a spear. Thought it was a great, game defining hit myself.

Anonymous said...

Poor loser encased in poor journalism. The call on Ainge's fumble was replayed so many time only an idiot or a blind person could call it an incomplete pass. You're right about one thing, Tennessee will once again be a 4 or 5 loss team this season.