Stuck Inside of Nashville with the Baton Rouge Blues Again
*And here I sit so patiently Waiting to find out what price You have to pay to get out of Going through all these things twice.
Steven Sully was confident that Bob Dylan wasn’t contemplating Tennessee football when he’d written these closing lines to one of his greatest songs. But, these words seemed to fit the mood on this Friday morning while driving to no place in particular. Or, was it Forrest Gump’s mother’s words that “life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.” Certainly no one could have known what the Vols would end up getting as their year-end distribution of life’s junk food.
Right before the emotional earthquake at the end of regulation, Ben and Luther were giving each other, and like-minded strangers seated around them, high fives in response to the referee’s (premature) verdict “the game is over.” It had been a series of twists and turns that brought this football game to its (satisfying) climax. It would be a few more moments before the two long-time Vol fans would discover that this climax wasn’t ecstacy at all, but instead a premature ejaculation of pent-up frustration that would lead to unfathomable depths of despair, an exponential increase of pent-up frustration.
When the officials ruled that North Carolina would be given an extra play, allowing the Tar Heels a chance to send the game into extra time and a chance at what seemed to be unfair redemption, Luther saw a bottle flying through the air, landing onto the playing surface just short of the point where the 20-yard line meets the out-of-bounds stripe. For a split second, he’d thought Luther threw it. Instead, his old friend was standing next to him, hands in his orange jacket, yelling “what the f*ck is going on!?!?” over, and over, and seemingly forever.
Teddy Karwacki spent most of his Friday morning reliving the fourth quarter, trying to atomize the game’s events in order make sense of the whole. Everything leading up to the 10:17 mark left in the fourth quarter was merely foreplay, an overture to the main act that would prove as close to a passion play as one could dream of for a sporting event. It rivaled the U.S.-Soviet Union 1972 Summer Olympics gold medal basketball game for its collective impact on the fan psyche. It surpassed the Tennessee-LSU football game earlier this season for its overall dramatic effect. As Carolina head coach Butch Davis mentioned after the game, this one might be played on ESPN Classic for many years to come.
Yes, the clock read 10:17 remaining in the game, with North Carolina carrying the same 17-14 advantage that they enjoyed with just a few seconds left in the first half when a T.J. Yates pass burned Janzen Jackson to the left side of the end zone.
The Tennessee Volunteers were locked with the North Carolina Tar Heels in a battle as physical and desperate as either side had been in all year. In the first half, Carolina had exhibited a fairly balanced attack of running and passing. Tennessee had no running game to speak of; it had been another aerial attack lead by freshman Tyler Bray and an array of receivers who continually positioned themselves to capitalize on Bray’s ability to “put a lot of air under his passes.” But the game in the second half had settled into a hard-hitting defensive battle, with Vol safety Janzen Jackson keeping the game a one-possession contest with a quality end-zone interception of a seemingly sure Tar Heel TD pass from T.J. Yates, and perhaps giving Janzen a brief respite from his family issues that resulted in missed practice time.
Now, the game turned sloppy as both teams traded possessions. Tennessee started yet another possession at the 10:17 mark, this time at their own 37 yard line. Receiver Denarius Moore almost broke a reception for a score. Another first down, and another, putting the Vols at the Carolina 21 yard line. This time, the Tar Heel defensive front got to Tyler Bray for a sack, followed by yet another inept Volunteer running attempt. It was 3rd and 18, a seemingly crucial part of the game. Bray threw underneath to Denarius Moore once again, who juked two defenders to get another first down inside the 10 yard line. On second down, Bray fired a laser strike to freshman receiver Justin Hunter at the back of the endzone to put the Volunteers up 20 to 17 with just over five minutes remaining. The extra point would force the Tar Heels into having to score a touchdown to get back in front.
Instead, the first deja vu moment for Vol fans everywhere happened as placekicker Daniel Lincoln let fly one of his patented low-riders, allowing a Tar Heel lineman to remind us of a fat ‘Bama lineman’s exploits of a year ago.
A four-point advantage, with all its hope, evaporated into a three-point lead instead, surely leaving the Vol Nation a bit less sure of itself.
With 5:10 left, Carolina started their response at the UNC 26. On a 3rd and 4, Tennessee was flagged for having a defender lined up in the neutral zone, giving what would be the first of many free yards yet to be gifted to the Tar Heels the rest of the evening. And, a crucial first down. Then, as the Vol front four pressured Yates, forcing him to scramble and forcing Derek Dooley to implore his forces to contain the opposing QB, Yates hit Dwight Jones on the left sideline for a first down. But, the referees who much later would be vilified by an entire state, overturned the reception due to the receiver stepping out-of-bounds before his catch. No matter. Carolina got its first down soon thereafter. What followed was the beginning of the end of Tennessee’s hope of a winning season.
With the clock down to 1:42 left in the contest, Carolina faced a 4th and 20 at their own 44 yard line. T.J. Yates dropped back and fired a NFL-quality pressure pass to receiver Dwight Jones just beyond the necessary 20 yards to go. As Jones jumped straight up for the throw, the ball hit him in the hands just below shoulder level, and dropped to the ground. The Vols had the ball in Carolina territory, and seemingly the ballgame.
Unfortunately, Carolina had two timeouts remaining, and Tennessee had no running game.
First down, a one-yard run. UNC calls a timeout.
Second down, a run lost 2 yards. UNC calls their final timeout.
Third down, another run up the middle, for a solitary yard. It was 4th and 11 at the Carolina 45. Tennessee calls a timeout. Only 39 seconds remained, 39 seconds that would live in infamy. The ensuing punt rambled into the endzone, giving UNC only 31 seconds to get into field goal range, a most improbable scenario.
Sometimes the improbability of a situation develops into a painful afterthought. On first down, Tar Heel QB Yates let one fly down the right sideline to receiver Todd Harrelson, who (1) made the catch, and (2) was in an instant hit by a flying missile dressed in an orange jersey, numbered 15. Yellow flags presented their questions. Did Harrelson drop the ball as he landed at the sideline, two yards shy of midfield? Men in stripes conferred. They rendered their verdict. The ruling on the field was upheld by the evidence presented in the form of video (the receiver looked to have landed squarely on the sideline stripe with the ball barely attached to his grasp).
First down Tar Heels. Wait, there was more. Vol safety Janzen Jackson was judged to have launched himself airborne. It wasn’t that he had led with his helmet (he did, violently burying it squarely in the shoulder blades of his victim), but that he didn’t maintain a grounded position to make the hit. Now it was a first down after a 28-yard gain, plus 15 yards, putting the ball at the Tennessee 37 yard line.
Just 5 seconds of the game clock had expired, and the ball had moved 43 yards under somewhat dubious circumstances.
First and ten Tar Heels. Slant route. Pass complete. First down at the Vol 25. Carolina desperately lines up with no timeouts remaining. Yates takes the snap and spikes the ball into the turf. Clock stops, reading 0:16. It would be a 42-yard field goal attempt. Instead, Carolina coach Butch Davis would give everyone a variant in prudent game-clock management. Handoff to Shaun Draughn, who had burned the Vol secondary for the game’s first score. Seven-yard gain to the Vol 18.
It was the strangest of calls. The Tar Heels were already in field-goal range at the 25 yard line, but they were out of timeouts. A run short of the first down marker would result in desperation to spike the ball to stop the clock. Quite a risk for shortening a FG attempt from 42 to something a little less. After all, Casey Barth is a very fine place-kicker.
But, that’s exactly what happened, except with this variation: the field goal unit proceeded onto the field with the QB lining up in a panic to get the snap and a spike before time ran out. Then, Carolina players, too many to accurately process, suddenly and desperately tried to exit the field. The snap and the spike eventually occurred, and the game clock read 0:00. More yellow flags with their questions. “Game over” was the referee’s verdict, announced over the stadium’s sound system.
The Vol Nation exploded with relief. The two head coaches shook hands at midfield. But, the “verdict” was about to become the subject of an appeals process – the officials chose to look to the video evidence once again. Carolina had more than eleven players on the field and would be assessed a 5-yard penalty. More explosion of relief by the Vol faithful. It wasn’t over. We had entered the world of a Franz Kafka novel. The officials also ruled that the spiked ball had hit the ground with 0:01 left, not the 0:00 that was currently visible on the scoreboards. UNC was a cat with multiple lives. The Vols were cursed to be tried for a crime of which they were not fully aware.
The Tar Heels’ field goal crew made their second appearance of the last few moments, this time with the luxury of a clock that would not start until the snap. (Whether that was the correct interpretation of the rules would be debated endlessly without reliable authority). Casey Barth’s kick curled ever so slightly to the left, splitting the uprights, and crushing the spirits of the Vols – players and fans. The score stood tied, 20-20. A white helmet with an orange T flew to the ground from somewhere, reminding us, whether we wanted the memory or not, of an October afternoon in Baton Rouge.
More yellow flags presented their questions. The answer was that Tennessee was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the penalty would be assessed during the overtime.
The play during the two overtimes, as full of drama as they were, were the denouement of this Play. Nothing could surpass the chaos, the distillation, and the resolution of events prior to the 0:00 mark of regulation time.
UNC were allowed to start at the Tennessee 12-and-a-half yard line instead of the customary 25 because of the helmet toss. The way the Tar Heels moved the ball, perhaps only partially aided by yet another Vol personal foul – this time a face-mask by Prentiss Waggner – the result from the 25 would likely have been the same. T.J. Yates eventually snuck it across the goal line, and the extra point gave Carolina a 27-20 advantage with the Vols about to serve. It only took two plays, the second a great catch by senior TE Luke Stocker in the end zone, for the Vols to give Daniel Lincoln a small step toward rehabilitation. The conversion was made, and at 27-all, it was Tennessee that would open the second overtime.
After a first down via a pass to Gerald Jones, the Vols had a 2nd and 9 at the Carolina 13 yard line. It seemed this might go on all night until complete exhaustion (fans or players?) set in. Instead, Tyler Bray threw a soft pass toward the left pylon that didn’t make it that far. Perhaps designed to be underneath the UNC secondary, perhaps not, the ball fell underneath the Vol receivers instead. Senior UNC linebacker Quan Sturdivant intercepted the orb and went to ground to preserve possession. It was now Carolina’s chance to end a season of struggle on a worthy note.
Shaun Draughn ran for a first down to the Tennessee 9-yard line, and on the ensuing second down, Butch Davis was in no mood for additional quirks and quarks. It would be Casey Barth to kick a 23-yard field goal and put an unmerciful end to Tennessee’s season. The two head coaches shook hands at midfield for the second time of the evening.
This time, it was all over.
Carlton Wilson had watched the game with his son James at a local Chattanooga establishment with folks from every walk of life. To Carlton, it didn’t matter if Janzen Jackson’s hit had either cost the Vols a victory or had no such effect. It didn’t matter if the flying helmet at the end of regulation had given Carolina the yardage they needed to score a TD instead of a FG in the first OT, or not. It didn’t matter if Daniel Lincoln’s missed extra point allowed UNC to tie the game – perhaps if Lincoln had given the Vols a 4-point advantage, Carolina would have had a different mind-set and scored a TD to win it in regulation. It didn’t matter if the officials had interpreted the rules correctly, or not, to allow Carolina one final play that tied the game, preventing a Vol victory.
These, and the questions brought by the numerous flying yellow flags were the questions posed by life’s circumstances, by life events. It was just the rub of the green, the fabric of life. There were mere events from which to move on. Forward was the only direction. He had learned this growing up when the world was a much different place, when the only way to survive was to learn as much as possible from events instead of dwell inside of them, allowing them to eat you up, fostering hatred toward anything in front of you, allowing you to give in and then give up, destroying you. Carlton knew this from personal experience.
He knew the Vols would either learn and prosper, or fall back into an abyss.
He had the confidence that Derek Dooley was a man who would use the adversities of the 2010 season to their best advantage. He had the confidence that the team’s underclassmen would use these adversities as fuel for improvement. He had the confidence that 2010 would become a seminal event in the history of Vol football – a complex event on which to build great things. He had optimism.
tOh, Mama is this really the end?
Pessimism had no useful function for moving forward, for forward was the only direction home.