"Go out five yards," he said.
The son, a portly 9 or 10 years old in an orange Eric Berry No. 14 jersey, ran a wobbly five yards and turned to receive his daddy's pass. The football whizzed in his direction, slammed into the pavement three yards short of its target and bounced high into the night air.
"I'm Jonathan Crompton," the dad said. Fellow tailgaters erupted in guffaws as the son tracked down the ball in the fading light.
It's come to this in Knoxville. One week after offering a tantalizing glimpse that something might be different, Crompton turned in the worst full-game performance by a Tennessee quarterback in a quarter century. In the wake of the resulting loss to UCLA, fans sputtered to explain how Crompton could be so bad.
Late that night as I stood at the urinal of a Cumberland Avenue bar, a fellow fan recognized me. "Clay," he said, "Todd Helton could have won us this game. Hell, A.J. Suggs would have beaten them by three touchdowns."
And he's right.
I don't even think we need Todd Helton back in his quarterbacking days at UT. I think if we'd just pulled the 36 year old from his Saturday game against the San Diego Padres, plugged him under center and given him five pass plays to run, Helton could have won the game for the Vols. Certainly he couldn't have done worse than Crompton, who finished 13 of 26 for 93 yards, three interceptions, one interception called back because of penalty, and another interception narrowly avoided after replay review. He also fumbled a quarterback-center exchange that led to UCLA's only touchdown. But supposedly he isn't to blame for that one.
In the end, UCLA won the game 19-15 on Saturday evening, but Jonathan Crompton lost it. He was so awful that his performance transcended the merely bad and ascended to the ranks of the astonishing. How bad did it get? Crompton's three interceptions came on three consecutive series, the final two of the first half and the first series of the second. After the second interception, the crowd booed. On the third? The crowd merely sat in stunned silence. Crompton pulled off a true rarity in the sport, back-to-back interceptions on consecutive pass attempts and three picks in five passes, a 60 percent interception percentage. Think about how hard that is to manage for a fifth-year starting college quarterback.
Then consider that all three interceptions were entirely self-inflicted wounds. On every interception, Crompton had plenty of time and no pressure. For someone who witnessed the game in person, it truly boggles the mind how badly Crompton played.
Especially with all that was at stake. I've been saying for months that the UCLA game was the most important on the schedule because of where it lay. Win and Tennessee can withstand the loss at Florida, return home with three home games in a row, and likely finish the first half of the season, at worst, at 4-2.
Lose and the bad karma of 2008 returns, the infighting between offense and defense reemerges, all of it is there to break the will of a fragile team. And now we're there. Go ahead and write off all possibility of 2009 being a good season.
1. UCLA is a much more physical team than last season.
Tennessee ran the ball twice as much as they threw it on Saturday. If they'd stuck to this ratio last season Phil Fulmer might still have a job. Last year, UCLA couldn't stop the run, this year they were much more sound up front. Defensively, UCLA is solid; offensively they're a work in progress.
But Neuheisel has them moving in the right direction.
2. You know what's the most frustrating thing about watching Crompton in person? You can see his mistakes before he can.
Honestly, you can. Why? Because he doesn't ever look off a receiver. He goes to his primary option, stares him down, cocks back his arm, and throws the football really hard. Even if the receiver is blanketed in coverage.
It's like seeing the future. You want to reach out and grab his arm. On the second interception, I was staring down the coverage thinking, he's not throwing that ball there, is he? You felt like everyone in the stadium needed to scream out, "Nooooo!" as Crompton cocks the ball.
What's the other side of the coin? You can also see the open receivers that he doesn't. On the first UT scoring drive, Crompton rolled out right and there was a receiver wide open directly in front of him. Everyone in my section was screaming, "Throw it to him, throw it to him."
Even if he couldn't see the receiver running directly in front of him wide open, Crompton could have kept the ball and run into the end zone. Instead he saw a receiver no one else even saw, a tight end blanketed in coverage in the back of the end zone. Predictably Crompton gunned it to him, Even more predictably the defender had a better shot of intercepting the ball than the tight end did of catching it.
3. How can a school as big as UCLA, set firmly in Southern California with harems of hot women everywhere, not bring a single attractive girl to the game?
For shame, UCLA, for shame.
Instead we learned that Asian men with backpacks travel well.
4. What's the second most frustrating thing about Crompton? He's not a gunslinger who recklessly throws the ball into coverage in an effort to make big plays. He's a gunslinger who drops his gun and blows off his own pinkie.
I think I could live with someone who sees single coverage outside and says, "By God, I'm throwing a 70-yard touchdown."
Even if occasionally those passes get intercepted, at least in that scenerio he's giving his receiver a chance to make a play. On 100 percent of Crompton's bad throws, the receiver has no chance to make a play on the ball.
Witness the first interception. Crompton had Gerald Jones as wide-open as a player can be in the center of the field. If Crompton hits Jones in stride, it's a touchdown. If he underthrows him by 10 yards, the play still gains at least 30 yards. If he overthrows him by five yards, Jones may still be able to get to the ball. My point, there is a massive window to land that pass inside. You or I could have thrown it. Instead Crompton overthrows Jones by about 15 yards. There wasn't even a point in Jones jumping as the pass sailed over his head. UCLA's safety, Rahim Moore snagged the gift interception.
5. Three quarters of the way through the game, my friend Neville turned to me and shakes his head.
Neville, a Florida grad, was wearing a Gator shirt and UT shorts because he fell down a hillside and stained his shorts (sigh, they weren't jorts) so badly on the walk into the stadium that he had to buy new ones.
"There hasn't been one play in this game that was memorable for a good reason."
I think that pretty much sums up this game.
6. Remember how Civil War soldiers described going into the battle as, "seeing the elephant?" The idea was that a battle was such a unique experience it only compared with seeing an elephant, you couldn't describe it to someone who hadn't fought in a battle.
I've got a new phrase for anyone who has to root for Jonathan Crompton, "seeing the Crompton." I'm picturing Lane Kiffin, who chose not to recruit any other quarterback last year because he believed Crompton would work out, coming out of the film room with his eyes wide-open, brushing back his hair from his forehead, and saying, "We need to burn this film now. I can't unsee this."
Yep, he's seen the Crompton alright.
So has every fan. It's the only way to describe the dull gleam, the pinprick of orange light in everyone's eyes after the game. We all looked like we'd just seen Bambi's mother die.
7. Isn't this loss also an indictment of Tennessee's proclamation that we were going to hire the greatest coaching staff on earth?
There were two primary reasons for replacing Fulmer
A.) He isn't recruiting as well as he needs to
B.) His coaching isn't good enough
Kiffin has recruited very well, but that was only the first goal of a new staff; they also had to outcoach the opposing staffs.
Tennessee entered as a double-digit home favorite and has more talent than UCLA. If every other play stays the exact same and Phil Fulmer is on the sideline, fans are outraged. I'll talk more about this below, but even with Crompton being awful, the staff should still have won this game.
8. Rick Neuheisel's third down play call from the end zone, was one of the stupidest and most reckless play calls I've ever seen.
Here's the setup: Tennessee is out of timeouts. You have a redshirt freshman starting his first road game. If you run the football, you might get tackled in th end zone. But that probability is unlikely. Assuming you can get the football outside the end zone with your run play, you run an additional 40 seconds off the play clock before taking an intentional safety on fourth down. If you really don't think you can gain yardage with a run play, run the quarterback sneak. How often has a quarterback sneak play ended in a safety?
If you take that safey on fourth down, Tennessee, who has run the ball on virtually every play in the second half, will have to pass on every play. And that, oh by the way, Crompton has completed just six passes in the entire second half. And he'll have to cover over half the field with no timeouts, score a touchdown, and do all that in a minute or so?
The odds are so stacked in UCLA's favor in this scenario that it's mind-blowing.
There's one way for UCLA to lose this game, turn the ball over. Knowing all of this, you elect to roll out your redshirt freshman quarterback, leave him defenseless in the end zone, and get him sacked for a safety. Oh, and on that play he breaks his jaw and is out for the next four games.
What an idiotic coaching decision.
But the best part? A frenzied Neuheisel sprints down the sideline in front of me and screams at former UCLA players, all in their 40s and wearing shorts and t-shirts, "Did he get out of the end zone?"
Seriously, your head coach is screaming at guys standing on the sidelines to help him with instant replay challenges.
9. Crompton completed just six passes in the second half.
I've been critical of Crompton, but this offensive staff did nothing to help him out. Why not go five wide and let Crompton throw bubble screen passes to playmakers on the outside? If you're not going to trust him to throw the ball down the field, shouldn't you at least let him make easy throws and trust your receivers to gain yards after the catch?
If not, and if you're entirely committed to the run game, why not bring in Eric Berry or Nu'Keese Richardson and let them run the wildcat?
Basically I've heard so much talk about how skilled this coaching staff is supposed to be, and when it really mattered and a game was on the line, I didn't see any schematic adjustments that made me think they were coaching geniuses.
I saw an utterly inept offense that looked just like 2008. Only worse.
10. What's the connection between Crompton and UCLA? Gangster rap.
Last week UT asked a site selling Crompton t-shirts, cityofcrompton.com in the style of the Compton logo, to stop selling the shirts to protect Crompton's eligibily.
Now I'm wondering if Vol fans are going to demand the site go back up in an effort to end Crompton's eligibility.
11. Every time Crompton entered the field in the second half, UCLA's fans cheered loudly.
I've never seen this before.
A road crowd cheering the reinsertion of a quarterback because they realize he's their secret weapon.
After the game I talked to several of Crompton's teammates, past and present. I asked them how this could keep happening. All of them were floored, all of them said he's a stud in practice. Then I asked if they could name another player at any position who played that well in practice and that poorly in games.
They couldn't think of a single one.
12. What was the toughest thing about this game from a UT fan perspective? How into it the crowd was.
It was incredibly loud throughout the fourth quarter, as loud as Neyland has been in years. This wasn't some hopeful, joyous cheering, it was a scream from the pit of your stomach, desperation melded into a blood-curdling noise. A recognition on the part of an awful lot of fans that a loss to UCLA dooms the 2009 season.
This really epitomized itself after Crompton threw an awful interception on fourth-and-14. Luckily UCLA was offsides. As the ball was spotted for 4th and 9 the crowd, in a madcap gambit to alter the karma, begins chanting, "Let's go Crompton."
The entire stadium.
I've never heard anything like it.
It was as if, at long last, we'd all come to the conclusion that Crompton's a insecure head case on the field and that maybe what he needs more than anything is to know that we all love him. So we tried to show him that no one wants him to be a good quarterback more than the 100,000+ fans who have lived through him being a bad quarterback.
Right there on that snap, Crompton had the chance to erase the entire game's frustrations. Convert the first down and lead the Vols down the field and into a new era of offensive competence. Instead, he threw a 12 yard curl in the direction of a receiver running a straight fly pattern.
The ball slammed into the dirt.
By the time it stopped moving, there was no Volunteer player within twenty yards of the final pass of the game.
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season," is on sale now.