KNOXVILLE — After Tennessee suffered its third loss of the season in early October, there was hardly a person in Neyland Stadium dressed in orange who didn’t want to bench quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin was not among them.
“There was never a doubt in my mind he gave us the best chance to win,” Kiffin said after Saturday night’s 56-28 win over Memphis.
Turns out the coach’s instinct was correct.
Since that 26-22 loss to Auburn on Oct. 3, Crompton has rewarded Kiffin’s faith in him by twice setting career highs in passing, turning into the Southeastern Conference’s leader in passing touchdowns with 21 and leading the Vols to their current 5-4 record.
Now there’s little doubt in fans’ minds that Crompton will give the Vols a good chance at going undefeated in November and lead them back to a bowl game.
“That’s how you know he’s building a championship program, saying, ‘I’m not going to be shaky on somebody. We’re going to stick with him, and we’re going to win games,’ ” Crompton said of Kiffin’s pledge of confidence.
The redshirt senior, who after the Auburn game led the nation with eight interceptions and had only nine touchdowns, set one career high with 310 yards passing against Georgia and another with his 331 yards against the Tigers (2-7).
Crompton made the effort against Memphis look easy. He racked up 305 yards in the first half, a school record for yards passing in a half. Peyton Manning set the previous record of 285 yards in a half against Northwestern in the 1997 Citrus Bowl.
With a 10-yard pass to Denarius Moore, Crompton broke the 310-yard mark on the first drive of the second quarter. He tied his career high of five TD passes on the next play with a 16-yard connection to Moore to make it 49-7 with 12:38 left in the third quarter.
Crompton had completed 21 of 27 passes with no interceptions — his second turnover-free game in a row — and run for a TD in addition to throwing for five by the time Kiffin replaced him with backup Nick Stephens halfway through the third quarter.
Stephens, the junior whom fans wanted to replace Crompton, finished 5-for-9 with a touchdown and an interception in a quarter and a half of mop-up duty. The pair split starting duties during Tennessee’s miserable 2008 season with neither emerging as a clear leader.
The odds have been stacked against Crompton through much of his career. Though ranked one of the top quarterback prospects in 2005, he was forced to wait his turn behind Erik Ainge.
He’s studied under four different offensive coordinators and was pegged the original starter during last year’s 5-7 season which turned out to be the Vols’ worst offensive season under then-coach Phillip Fulmer.
Crompton seemed on the verge of another bad season after shaky, interception-prone losses to UCLA and Auburn. But Kiffin stayed with him, blaming many of the passing game problems on mistakes by wide receivers and his own play calling.
“We weren’t doing things around him,” Kiffin said. “I wasn’t giving him a good enough game plan. We weren’t making enough plays, and he was making some poor decisions. We got those things fixed, and that’s why he’s on the run he’s on right now.”
In the last five games Crompton has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He’s spread out the scoring strikes among 11 different targets, his favorites being Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. Both Jones and Moore spent the first few games of the season recovering from offseason surgeries.
Memphis coach Tommy West said he prepared for Tennessee with the idea that stopping running back Montario Hardesty would be the key to stopping the Vols’ offense.
“We came in to take the back out of the game, and their quarterback threw the ball to beat us,” West said.