A Second Chance Not Wasted: Vols Survive Vandy
Archibald Barns returned a Tyler Bray pass 100 yards for a touchdown. Eric Gordon returned a Jordan Rogers pass 90 yards for a touchdown.
That’s the kind of night it was at Neyland Stadium in one of the most memorable Tennessee-Vanderbilt games in a generation or more.
The first question was whether or not Tyler Bray would start as the Vols QB. A Beatles concert broke out as the PA announced Bray would be the man. Little did the faithful know that Bray would have perhaps his worst game as a Volunteer.
But as bad as Tyler Bray was at times on Saturday night, Tennessee would not have won without him. His effect on his teammates was palpable.
His receiver of choice, Da’Rick Rogers, played with new energy as his gridiron soulmate was back leading the charge. Everything was catchable.
The defense also played as if they had more confidence because of Bray’s presence. And the seniors. They all came to play, too. They stepped up as requested.
During post-game interviews, Bray indicated that a lot of people thought he shouldn’t play — you know, the thumb and the rust and all.
Instead, Bray knew what night this was — Seniors’ Night. After all this graduating class had been through with three head coaches and numerous assistants, Bray couldn’t let them down.
But the breaks. My God, the breaks…
Eric Gordon took his overtime pass interception all they way back for a score. The winning score? The line judge went to mark a spot. A spot of what? Images from last season came flooding in — the end in Baton Rouge, the end of regulation in the Music City. LSU. North Carolina. The curse was still alive and about as immune to death as all of bacteria.
The replay clearly showed that little Eric’s knee hadn’t touched the ground. Had the line judge whistled the play dead? Instead of a winning score, would Tennessee be penalized because of some kind of ridiculous call for celebration?
Did white helmets fly off heads with orange shirts? Did Tennessee have 13 players on the field? Anything and everything seemed possible as the play would be reviewed.
It was an explosion of sound that followed the official’s announcement that it was a score — a mixture of collective release of anxieties of games past with sheer happiness and delight that radiated into the November night. It was a clean knee. The doom and gloom had been lifted.
The SEC issued a statement about three hours after the game, saying that an official had blown his whistle to indicate Gordon was down — an incorrect call, because his knee had only air under it — and the officials were incorrect to allow the review to occur because of the blown whistle. Did the officials knowingly break a rule to get the call right?
The gods were smiling down on the Vols for a change. For once. At least for a little while.
Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe how the Vols were able to get to an overtime instead of suffering would would have been a program-defeating loss. It all started with the beginning of the third quarter. Tennessee hadn’t scored in a second half since the Georgia game. Five consecutive games without a single score.
Coming away from halftime with a 14-7 lead, fueled in large part of Vandy being, well, Vandy, everyone in the Vol Nation was probably thinking the Big Orange were living on borrowed time. After all, Vandy in the first half had missed two field goal attempts, lost a fumble, and committed another turnover with an intercepted pass, all while dominating Tennessee in most aspects of play.
So when the Vols opened the third quarter by going three-and-out, it seemed all too familiar. And when Vandy took advantage of a busted coverage by the Tennessee secondary on a first-and-20 from their own 27, the Commodores were looking at a sure tying TD with the ball at the Vols’ 1 yard line.
Oh those breaks. Commodore DT Josh Jelesky, trailing the play by several yards, pulled what could rightfully be called a dirty cheap shot when he clipped Vol Mo Couch from behind. Mo survived. So did the Vols as a lonely yellow flag marked the spot of the foul.
Instead of first and goal at the Tennessee 1 yard line, it was first and 34 at the Vandy 14. The Commodores on their possession ended up going three-and-out with two penalties and a sack. It was second and 46 instead of a tie game. It could have cost Vandy the game, except that there was so much more to play out.
But could Tennessee answer the bell?
It sure looked like it. Bray moved the Vols down the field quickly and had the ball, third-and-3 on the Vandy 3 yard line. But whether it was The Thumb, or the rust of weeks on the sideline in a cast, or the gloves Tyler decided to use to get a better grip on the ball, or just simply a poor throw, Vandy junior LB Archibald Barnes caught it at the goal line instead of the intended Vol TE Michael Rivera and returned it 100 yards for the tying TD.
It was Vandy’s fourth INT return for a score this season. It was the longest INT return in the long history of Vanderbilt football. It was the longest ever against the Vols, equaling a 100 yard return by Mississippi State’s Louis Guy in 1962.
It felt like the beginning of a slow tortuous end.
Bray discarded the gloves. His Vols responded with a facemask penalty, on offense, a sack to make it third-and-39, a timeout having to be called because of only 10 men on the field, followed immediately by a flag for an illegal formation. Yes, an illegal formation after a timeout.
Punt. Tennessee was falling apart. Again.
Now Vandy began to choke the Vols in a game of field position. The Commodores started two consecutive drives from the Tennessee 35-yard line, scoring on the second one after converting on a fourth-and-five and a third-and seven.
Vanderbilt 21 Tennessee 14 with a little over 12 minutes to play. In the last six games, Tennessee had now been outscored in the second half by a margin of 101 to 0.
Tennessee had outgained Vandy this half, 53 yards to 51, but the Commodores had outscored the Vols 14-0.
A rerun of the same horrowshow…
…except that Bray was at the helm.
The Vols moved into Vandy territory very quickly to the point where the much-maligned senior RB Tauren Poole had 100 yards on the ground and sophomore WR Da’Rick Rogers already had his 6th 100-yard receiving game of the season, and soon to have 1,000 yards on the season — only the sixth Vol receiver to have accomplished that feat.
It eventually got to the point where Tennessee had the ball third-and-goal at the Vandy 5 yard line. Rivera dropped a Bray pass to make it fourth and goal.
Palardy on his 22-yard field goal attempt did his best Daniel Lincoln imitation by drilling his kick low into his own line. Out comes the bouncing ball, and down goes Palardy, run over by the charging senior safety Sean Richardson.
The officials’ call was running into the kicker, not roughing the kicker. Richardson took Palardy down, but he had not touched the ball.
Thus, instead of the Vols retaining possession with a first and goal, Tennessee was awarded the ball at the Vandy two yard line and fourth down.
Instead of a missed field goal and a deficit of seven, the Vols have a chance to get even.
A second chance.
Bray’s next pass was to Rogers who made a brilliant one-handed grab on a fade pattern to tie the game, 21-21.
A second chance had not been wasted.
The last six minutes were tense. And with Vandy driving in the last couple of minutes, sophomore DB Prentiss Waggner came away with his second INT of the season at the Vol 37 yard line to send this crazy contest into overtime. It was a nice booked to Austin Johnson’s fourth INT of the season in the first quarter, the most by a Tennessee linebacker since Jackie Walker’s 5 picks in 1970.
It was crazy. It was infuriating. It was exciting. It was nearly disasterous. But in the end, it was a win, a big win, for the seniors, for Derek Dooley, and for the fans, all who have suffered by looking into the abyss for several weeks.
Now, a winning season is a distinct possibility.
That is a thought as unbelievable as this game was enthralling.