KNOXVILLE — First he skipped 60 yards down the Neyland Stadium sideline cheering Eric Gordon’s every stride. Then he screamed with the rage of 100 forest fires in the face of any official he could find. Then he raised his arms as a combination of relief and elation disappeared off his shoulders.
Fifteen minutes after a stomach-turning whirlwind, Derek Dooley plopped into a chair inside Neyland's Stokely Media Center.
“Hey, maybe the ol’ luck has changed for Tennessee,” the Vols coach said.
Hosting Vanderbilt, a team it has dominated since the Coolidge administration, Tennessee notched its first SEC win of the season Saturday with a 27-21 win. It only took a 90-yard interception return for an overtime touchdown by a reserve nickle back to end the agony in Rocky Top. The absurdity of that sentence perfectly sums up the Vols’ season.
“The black cloud over Knoxville blew away and we finally got a little sunshine,” Dooley said smiling.
The final play on UT's annual Senior Day is one for the vault. From the Tennessee 10-yard line, Vanderbilt had a chance to punch in a score on its opening overtime possession and snap a 21-21 tie. Instead, Gordon slipped in front of wide receiver Daniel Hagaman, poached the ball and darted down the field as bedlam rang throughout a stadium that hasn’t had many reasons to cheer.
The referees nearly derailed the celebration, causing Dooley to explode, but ultimately ruled that Gordon’s knee, which nearly grazed the grass, was never down.
“Words can’t describe the feeling,” Gordon said.
“I think I got injured two plays before that, but once I saw Eric running down the sidelines, all the pain went right away,” added UT free safety Prentiss Wagner, who notched a interception of his own earlier in the game after serving as one of 15 Vols to run through the "T" for the final time.
If Dooley ultimately drags Tennessee football out of the doldrums of mediocrity, this one will be remembered down the road. The game epitomized a team that has never given up on itself despite being presented every reason to.
A bowl game was on the line against Vanderbilt. Losing meant that next week’s game at Kentucky would be the final affair of the year. A season that was written off long ago would finally fizzle to an end.
But to its credit, Tennessee didn’t let that happen. It proved it wanted to see another day. To the Vols, a mundane trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or the Music City Bowl, or the BBVA Compass Bowl, or the Liberty Bowl, isn’t a potential hollow, inconsequential venture. Little, if any, of the team’s preseason goals will be accomplished this year. Five losses in the last six weeks exhausted any chance, but that disheartening reality didn’t wrench aspirations, it simply redefined them.
Next week’s meeting in Lexington now has meaning.
“I keep telling them that I’ve seen a lot of good in them the last six weeks that a lot of people can’t see,” Dooley said. “I kept believing in them and they kept believing in themselves. It’s real easy to get lost in (adversity). It’s toxic — all the negativity that can surround a program. It’s hard on a young man. It’s hard on adults.”
Entering Saturday, Tyler Bray’s return from a broken thumb was believed to be the missing piece in slowing the Vols’ tailspin. That didn’t exactly come to fruition. The sophomore quarterback made a handful of sharp throws — like a second-quarter 17-yard touchdown pass to Rogers that conjured memories of early season magic — but the misfires were dramatic. He threw two costly interceptions — one that was returned for a touchdown and another that resulted in a Vanderbilt scoring drive.
Over an abysmal third quarter, Tennessee gained 57 yards and three first downs in 18 plays over nine minutes. Still, the Vols didn’t fold.
“We were positive all night,” Dooley said. “We never tucked our tails and put our head down tonight, and there were a lot of opportunities to.”
When it ultimately came down to it, Bray got it done. He spearheaded a 13-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game. From the 2-yard line, he again found Rogers, who made a spectacular one-handed grab.
Bray found a way. The Vols found a way. It was a payoff, of sorts, for a team with impressive resolve.
Through a season plagued by injuries, a harrowing schedule and a roster filled primarily with underclassmen, there’s never been any loser’s lament from Tennessee. Dooley could have turned every press conference into a jeremiad weeks ago. The players could have revolted, spoken out of turn, and answered resentment with immaturity.
But it never happened.
Now it’s off to Kentucky. The ride to Lexington will be under clear skies.