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How quickly we forget. Barely two weeks after Rick Clausen’s heroic performance against LSU, the efficient but boring Ole Miss game had brought his status into question. Despite the fact that descriptions of Clausen’s “weaknesses” were quite similar to the scouting reports of highly esteemed college quarterbacks David Greene and Alex Smith, UT fans wanted some excitement, and there were already some disgruntled murmurs about Ainge being on the sidelines in a backup role to a quarterback “who could only dink it around.”
Especially with the Georgia Bulldogs coming to town. It was only the fifth game of the season, and the Vols were preparing for their third opponent ranked in the top five. A boring game against the Dawgs couldn’t possibly result in a win, could it? Was Clausen the guy to break Mark Richt’s stronghold over Phillip Fulmer? After all, it was Ainge who beat them at their place last year, wasn’t it?
A recent history of blow-out losses at home to top teams had fans nervous. Still, there were some optimists. Sure, D.J. Shockley had played well so far this season, but he hadn’t done it against quality opponents.
Then again, the Dawgs were motivated. Its biggest rivals in the SEC East – Tennessee and Florida – both had one loss already, and a win over the Vols would knock UT out of the picture and put all of the pressure on the Gators in the two-way race between Georgia and Florida for the East. Oh, and Georgia had had two weeks to prepare while Tennessee would be playing its third game in 13 days.
Nobody really knew what to expect.
Note: a larger version can be seen on the Animated Drive Chart page.
The drive charts for the Georgia game really don’t tell the story as well as some of the other ones do. You can look at the first half drive lines and tell that Georgia found its groove first and put together a solid touchdown drive before proceeding to absolutely kill the Vols with field position. Except for the fumbles and interceptions, however, you don’t really get a true appreciation for the fact that Tennessee’s poor field position for the bulk of the game was primarily attributable to a host of penalties and other errors.
Note: a larger version can be seen on the Animated Drive Chart page.
Not counting the final touchdown drive, which was accomplished when the game had already been decided, the Volunteer offense had 12 meaningful possessions. They started almost half of those possessions inside their own ten yard line, two of them inside their own five. Three times, the poor field position was directly attributable to Volunteer penalties.
On four of their drives, the Vols got behind on downs, either because of penalties or other mental errors. Their good drives ended in turnovers. The entire game was a dark comedy of offensive errors, and it didn’t help that Georgia was a pretty good team.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. With one minute and thirteen seconds remaining in the first half, All-American cornerback Jason Allen positioned himself to tackle the Bulldogs’ monster tight end Leonard Pope as he was steamrolling toward the end zone. Pope barreled toward Allen low, so Allen got even lower, ending up on his knees in an attempt to get the necessary leverage. The resulting collision bent Allen over backwards, twisting his legs awkwardly underneath him. Replays showed Allen’s leg spasm involuntarily after the tackle.
At the time, no one knew the severity of the injury, and the loss of the game somehow didn’t seem as important as the loss of the much beloved cornerback who had postponed a promising NFL career to play another year for the Volunteers:
If you’re wondering what cornerback Jason Allen means to the Tennessee Volunteer Football team, well, just have a look at this picture, taken from the nosebleeds just after Allen failed to get up after making a tackle in Saturday’s game against Georgia:
When he still didn’t get up after about ten minutes, the entire team gathered in prayer:
I was sitting in the same seats last year when, again just before halftime, Erik Ainge suffered a season-ending injury to his shoulder.
That was bad.
This was worse.
We see injuries all the time. Some of them even cut short a promising college football career.
But Jason Allen last year decided to postpone a promising and lucrative NFL career to come back and play for the Vols. He didn’t intend to forego it.
Everything I’ve heard about Jason Allen is that he’s a solid, Christian young man with his priorities straight. A fierce competitor when the ball is snapped, he is the epitome of good sportsmanship, patting opponents on the backside after knocking the snot out of them. He is admired as much by those opponents as he is by his teammates.
Allen could have left school early and earned millions playing in the NFL this year, but instead, he chose to return to lead the Vols’ championship run. This season, he basically played two positions at once. He somehow racked up safety-like tackle statistics while also shutting down every opponent’s best receiver from his cornerback position. He’s led by example and vocally inspired the Vols’ secondary to show everyone that they are not the team’s greatest weakness, but one of the team’s strengths.
And there he was, lying on the turf. Surrounded by trainers. Both teams kneeling in prayer before a shocked-into-silence crowd of 108,000 fans and admirers. You could almost see the question on his face as he surveyed the crowd through watering eyes: Is this goodbye?
There’s not much information available yet about the extent of Allen’s injury. The Volunteer Nation and football fans everywhere are praying that it’s not as serious as the bent backwards, sideways twisted collision made it appear.
Tennessee fans enjoyed watching Jason Allen play four and a half games in a Volunteer uniform this season. If it’s his last for the Vols, quite frankly, that’s okay.
Just pray that being a Vol hasn’t cost him a career.
Over the course of the next week, Allen and Vol fans received some promising news regarding his hip injury.
It turned out that the hip was dislocated but not fractured, meaning that it was more like former Vol Deon Grant’s hip injury than Bo Jackson’s. Allen ended up missing the rest of his senior season, but he maintained a positive attitude throughout the ordeal and was eventually drafted by the Miami Dolphins as the 16th overall pick.
The news for the team, however, was not so good. Tennessee had started the season ranked No. 3 in the nation with what fans thought was a legitimate shot at the national title, and now the team had lost to its top two rivals in the SEC East. Even the most enthusiastic and loyal fans started making jokes. Media types starting calling for a Big Orange Change in Philosophy.
Eventually, the shock wore off a bit, and fans realized that even after two losses the Volunteers were only mostly dead. No, they wouldn’t be really most sincerely dead until the next game. In Tuscaloosa.