I don’t know why I keep underestimating The Swamp. It seems like every couple of years I’m thinking (at some point, whether before, during, or just before I’m reminded yet again that it doesn’t always matter) that Tennessee is the better team and it should follow that the Vols should win. I have a hazy recollection of bad things happening against Florida, especially in their habitat, but a curse? Eh, not really a thing. Like Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch Ness, the Bermuda Triangle. Make believe.
And then it makes me believe it again. Giving up a late 63-yard touchdown on 4th and 14 for the go-ahead score? Allowing a receiver to get behind a prevent defense in the end zone on the last play of the game to win? Call it self-fulfilling prophecy. Call it The Weirdness. Call it simple home field advantage. Call it whatever you like, but next time, Joel, remember that it’s real. (Side note: I went looking for the link where I called this phenomenon The Weirdness and got lost in a rabbit hole on Podcast Episode 155 where Will and I go on a five-minute tangent about donuts at around the 5:00 mark. And Will didn’t say that word, by the way. The translation bot disparages our beloved pastor.)
Anyway, the 2023 edition of The Swamp Thing features a Vols squad attempting to play with one arm (and sometimes two) tied behind their metaphorical (and sometimes not metaphorical!) backs.
After a beautiful 71-yard, six-play touchdown drive to begin the game, Tennessee’s offense gnawed off an arm with a series of pre-snap penalties that killed three consecutive drives. Here’s the rap sheet:
- Drive 2: False start on the second 1st and 10. Never recovered. Punt. Afterwards, the Gators ate 7.5 minutes of clock and scored a touchdown.
- Drive 3: False start on the first play of the drive. Pressure (435 pounds of it!) on 2nd and 12 resulted in an interception, which was returned 39 yards. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of the play moved the Gators to within 9 yards of the goal line. Touchdown, Gators.
- Drive 4: Another false start, again on the very first play of the drive. Sack on 2nd and 12. Never recovered. Punt. Gators went 55 yards for another touchdown.
After the first, the Vols’ remaining drives ended in three punts and an interception. Three of those four drives were killed by pre-snap penalties that smelled distinctly of swamp water. Josh Heupel’s high-flying offense can score points in buckets when it gets ahead of the chains and can leverage momentum to reach cruising altitude. But when it gets off schedule, it has trouble just getting off the ground. It’s like the opening drive conceived a confidence like that of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I’M INVINCIBLE!
Let’s talk about that . . . tackle?
Speaking of the Black Knight, there was also a moment where the defense decided to play without any arms whatsoever:
Oh, boy. That is one of the most egregiously inept efforts at tackling that I have ever seen. Actually, it looks more like the dude just plain decided not to do it.
When my oldest daughter was super young (maybe 5?), we put her in a church soccer camp thing. I don’t know what we were thinking. At that age, she thought she was a horse. Or Simba from the Lion King, depending on the day.
If you’ve ever watched 5-year-olds on a soccer field, you know that it’s basically a herd of baby animals kicking each other. They have no understanding of spacing or passing or strategy. Their goal is simply to find the ball and kick it. The 5-stars at that age understand that they’re supposed to kick it in a certain direction, but that’s about as far as they get with strategy in that division.
But even that wasn’t in my daughter’s playbook. Her entire strategy consisted of just running after the herd. Man, she was good at it, too. She had a nose for the back of the pack, identifying it and seeking it out with an Olympic single-minded purposefulness. If at any point the tide shifted and she suddenly found herself next to the ball in the middle of a blender of shin-hacking appendages, she would instantly spin and sprint toward safety at the end of the line. If they were giving out nicknames, hers would have been “Caboose.”
Watching #5 on that play reminded me of watching my daughter on the soccer field trying to avoid actually playing soccer.
I love my daughter. It turns out, she’s just not cut out for soccer. She’s 27 now, and the good news is that she no longer thinks she’s a horse.
Anyway, I love these college football kids, too, almost as if they were my own. I know it’s not the usual way to root for a sports team, and I’m not judging anyone for doing it differently. But just from my own perspective as a father of three daughters (27, 21, and 12), I view these guys as people to love. I want to see them grow in maturity, strength of mind and character, and faith. I want them to learn discipline, to work hard, to trust teammates, to be a reliable brother and friend, to succeed and learn how to handle that success, and to learn how to deal with failure when it inevitably comes. When a kid has great success and earns the adoration of the masses, I hope the coaches keep him grounded. When a kid makes a mistake and is relentlessly reminded of it through every data feed on his phone, I hope that the coaching staff will balance out the good work of natural consequences with the right amount of constructive criticism spoken in love from people he actually knows and trusts.
There’s no getting around it. That was a terrible effort, and #5 is quickly developing a reputation for being an especially poor tackler (although I will point out that he was the team’s second-leading tackler Saturday night.) He’s certainly hearing about it now, both from his inner circle of coaches and teammates and from all corners of the internet, including this site.
I assume that his goal is to play in the NFL, and I am rooting for him to accomplish all that his heart desires and to grow in all situations, good and bad. I don’t know him, but if I did, I would give him a hug today. And I’d tell him to use his arms. And I would say it with a wink so that he knew that I was joking but also not joking. Joking, because this is football and it’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things. And not joking, because I am really rooting for him to achieve his goals.