Vol Vent Line
Emotion is no substitute for confidence.
All through the week leading up to Saturday's homecoming game against Wyoming, Tennessee had plenty of the former after UT coach Phillip Fulmer announced Monday he would not return as head coach for an 18th season.
But on offense, confidence was in short supply.
After a 13-7 loss to Wyoming in Neyland Stadium in which the Vols' offense was responsible for all 20 points on the scoreboard, confidence is all but out of stock.
"Sometimes you get that feeling when you're not playing well of 'Here we go again,' " offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "I'm sure to some degree that's kicked in."
It didn't take long.
On UT's opening possession, quarterback Nick Stephens made the first of two bad decisions that led to being benched for the second week in a row.
On second-and-6 from the Wyoming 31-yard line, Cowboys defensive end Mike Neuhaus batted Stephens' pass in the backfield and corralled it before taking off 55 yards to the Tennessee 4.
One play later, the Cowboys had a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. And what little confidence the Vols' offense had was shaken.
For an offense that has produced plenty of stomach-turning plays this season, Saturday was another lowlight.
After three punts, Stephens threw another interception that Ward Dobbs took 24 yards for Wyoming's only other score.
"We don't force balls backed up at Tennessee," Fulmer said.
But after 10 games - and a record-tying seventh loss - the Vols are simply that bad offensively.
Jonathan Crompton entered for UT's next drive and stayed on the rest of the way. The embattled junior, who started the Vols' first four games before being benched in favor of Stephens, led an 11-play, 64-yard touchdown drive to open the second half.
That drive fell 1 yard short of UT's 65 total offensive yards in the first half, but it wasn't enough to make up for those two costly mistakes by Stephens.
Ball security had been Stephens' biggest strength through his first four starts. Aside from fumbling on a sack against Northern Illinois, he hadn't turned the ball over until the South Carolina game the previous week. His sixth career start Saturday was the worst statistical day of his career.
Stephens finished 3-of-9 passing for 27 yards with two interceptions.
"The book on him is just making bad decisions," Clawson said. "It's easy to say it's one thing. Those (interceptions) are two individual plays he made terrible decisions on."
Despite the miscues, UT still had a chance in the fourth quarter to avoid its first loss to a team from the Mountain West Conference. Crompton drove the Vols to the Wyoming 19 before UT failed to gain on three consecutive plays - all incompletions to Denarius Moore.
"I'm a quarterback," said Crompton, the only offensive player made available for interviews following the game. "I throw the ball. I'm not a running back. If I feel I can run, I'll run. But I felt like (Moore) was open. It's a bang-bang thing. You've got to make a quick decision."
Tennessee, which has an open date before facing Vanderbilt on Nov. 22, got productive days from Lennon Creer (82 yards on 16 carries) and true freshman Tauren Poole (44 yards on 11 carries) in the absence of its top two tailbacks, Arian Foster (thigh bruise) and Montario Hardesty (stress fracture).
But what's plagued the Vols since their season began with an upset loss at UCLA on Sept. 1 has been turnovers and quarterback play.
Clawson, who said coaches discussed playing third-team quarterback B.J. Coleman, said some of the blame for UT's quarterback play falls on him.
"I coach them," he said. "I'm responsible for them. That's on me. I have to do a better job with those guys."
Crompton said afterward the blame for UT's loss to Wyoming shouldn't fall on receivers or offensive linemen or coaches.
"I don't know what to say because we're out there busting our butts," he said. "For anybody to say anything - (receivers) dropped a pass here or they dropped a pass there, I don't want to hear that at all. I don't want to hear anything about the O-line this or the O-line that or the defense. I especially don't want to hear anything about the coaches. We were just trying to win the game and we came out on the short end."
Fulmer took the long view.
"Offensively, we just didn't get it done," he said. "Again."