Last night’s double overtime victory over a Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets team that had dominated them most of the night turned out to be an unexpected thriller, warts and all.
A terrible start
After a brief period during which both sides were sizing each other up, it was ugly for the Vols in the first half, with Georgia Tech moving the ball at will on the ground, putting up touchdowns, and eating clock, while Tennessee’s offense struggled. Apart from turning a short field into seven points after a Georgia Tech fumble, the Vols were being dominated by the Yellow Jackets.
New quarterback Quinten Dormady was a woeful 8-20 for 52 yards in the first half. Passes that were on target were being dropped by receivers, and to make matters worse, Jajuan Jennings left the game with a wrist injury that would keep him out for the duration of the evening.
Finding themselves in the second half
The third quarter started like the first half ended, with GT putting together a five-minute touchdown drive to go up 21-7 and the Vols responding with a three-and-out. But then the Vols began to piece things together, and it was just a question of whether they had enough time to climb out of the hole they’d dug for themselves.
Thanks to an offense that found its identify in Dormady handing off to John Kelly and throwing to Marquez Callaway and a defense that finally made a couple of key stops and caused a key fumble, the Vols managed to get the game tied at 28 with 1:29 to go in the game.
At that point, Tech marched down the field to the Tennessee 24-yard line to set up a 36-yard field goal attempt with three seconds left to win the game.
And that’s when things went from interesting to historical.
Introducing Paul Bain from Champs
It should have been a relatively easy field goal attempt for Georgia Tech, and they should have been racing off the field declaring to the the world that they were 4-0 in the SEC. But walk-on Paul Bain was having none of that nonsense, and he blocked the attempt to send the game to overtime.
— GoVolsXtra (@GoVolsXtra) September 5, 2017
What does Paul Bain expect when he returns home now that he’s Knoxville-famous? Nothing much:
Hard-working young guy(has 2 jobs!) w/big play & line of the night "I expect to be treated the exact same. I'm still Paul Bain from Champs." https://t.co/Iu8kCsWMOJ
— Vince Ferrara (@VinceSports) September 5, 2017
He’s Paul Bain from Champs, and how he always will be.
Trading punches in overtime
But, of course, the drama didn’t end with the block by Paul Bain of Champs. The teams traded touchdowns and extra points in the first overtime, and the Vols scored another touchdown and extra point to begin the second. At this point, neither team’s defense could stop the others’ offense, so when Georgia Tech scored its own touchdown in the second overtime to bring them within one point of the Vols, Paul Johnson elected to go for two, putting the entire game on the shoulders of one play.
The play that mattered most
The Vols had been gashed and gassed all night long. In the end, they would give up 535 rushing yards on 86 exhausting plays. All night, it had seemed like Georgia Tech could score three yards almost at will, and there was little reason to believe that the Vols would be able to stop them this time.
But when it mattered most, when the game was on line, that is exactly what they did.
The last play of the game. pic.twitter.com/N3aPpJCek2
— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) September 5, 2017
— Learfield IMG College Audio (@LearfieldAudio) September 5, 2017
SB Nation has a really interesting Xs and Os explanation of why Tech’s two-point conversion attempt didn’t work, but it really all boils down to this: Tennessee defensive end Darrell Taylor beat his guy. Taylor said after the game that he knew exactly what to do on the play:
“I knew he was going to keep it, honestly,” he said. “I didn’t think nothing about the pitch. I was the quarterback player.”
Bottom line, Team 121 still has a lot of work to do, but there is a lot to like. Consider this:
- John Kelly finished with 128 rushing yards and four touchdowns and five receptions for another 35 yards. He appears to be the workhorse we believed him to be.
- After a rough first half, Quinten Dormady finished 20-37 for 221 yards and two touchdowns and earned post-game praise from Kirk Herbstreit. The fact that he played the entire game is not a condemnation of Jarrett Guarantano, either, as Jones said the decision to play Dormady the entire way was merely due to the fact that the unique nature of the opponent required continuity at the position.
- Marquez Callaway proved that he is ready for the big stage, and he’ll need to be with reports now surfacing that Jajuan Jennings will miss 12 weeks with a dislocated wrist that requires surgery. Callaway had four huge receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns and established himself as the go-to receiver in the absence of Jennings.
- Linebacker Daniel Bituli had 23 tackles, Colton Jumper had 18, and three other players were in double figures. A lot of that comes from having to play a thousand snaps, but still.
- Evan Berry averaged 43 yards per kickoff return, and Trevor Daniel had a 70-yard punt.
- And the Vols are 13-7 in overtime games and, most importantly, 1-0 for the season.
Grit, belief, and the will to win
So, in the end the team escaped with a victory, and yet we’re still kind of wondering what it all means. When asked what it is about his team that attracts chaos, coach Jones nudged the narrative back to how he’s proud of his team’s heart and also tipped his cap to the Yellow Jackets:
“Maybe our program has great character and grit,” Jones said. “These kids believe in each other, and the amount of players that kept walking by me saying, we’ve got you, Coach. Coach, we’ve got you. Again, I think it’s how you tell the narrative. I think this is a football program that’s built on character, it’s built on grit, it’s built on belief, and we found a way to win when we didn’t play our best, but a lot of that is a tribute to Georgia Tech.”
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 5, 2017
Postscript: The trash can
No, you weren’t the only one raising an eyebrow at the sight of a orange and white checkerboarded Team 121 trash can being hoisted on the Vols’ sideline for much of the game.
The official explanation for the thing is that it’s a motivational tool designed to encourage a focus on creating turnovers. A player who recovers a fumble or makes an interception gets to carry the ball to the trashcan and dunk it.
Of course, the internet, and in particular the Twittersphere, cares little for official explanations, and instead immediately instituted a runaway meme as the team struggled while lifting a trash can like it was a trophy. I’m usually more on the side of giving the guys trying to motivate the kids a break, but I have to admit that this was pretty funny:
Somebody who beats Tennessee needs to steal the trash can and turn it into a rivalry trophy
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) September 5, 2017
Of course, the trash can got the last laugh with a well-deserved victory lap . . .
trash can wins pic.twitter.com/25vrOGJzpk
— @GrantRamey (@GrantRamey) September 5, 2017
. . . and by quickly celebrating its newfound celebrity status with an actual Twitter account.