Sports is all about those “where were you” moments.
When Francisco Cabrera drove in Sid Bream for an improbable National League Championship Series win over the Pirates in 1992, I was a 13-year-old kid who got to stay up late, dance around the living room and embrace my dad when it happened.
When Florida missed the overtime field goal in 1998 and the Tennessee Vols exorcised the Gators demon, I was sitting in Section D for it, then I was storming the field as a freshman who felt on top of the world. Later that year, I fumed at my parents because they didn’t let me go to Tempe but still celebrated with buddies as the Vols beat Florida State for the national championship.
I have no idea what Monday night’s 42-41, inexplicable triumph over a Georgia Tech team that manhandled the Vols all night will mean in the long run. But, in it’s own sick-and-twisted, morbid way, it’ll hold a spot on the list of games I won’t forget.
Oh, it’s nowhere near the moments mentioned above, but for those of us who love the macabre, it will teeter on the fringe of fable.
In a game the Vols should have lost six or seven times, at least, a defensive hero in Darrell Taylor emerged from a field full of defensive goats who’d given up more rushing yards than any UT team in school history, battled through a block and somehow stuffed Georgia Tech He-Man signal-caller TaQuon Marshall for what would have been a go-ahead, game-ending two-point conversion by the Yellow Jackets.
For one play, a Vols defense that hadn’t stopped GT from getting three rushing yards on a play nearly all night somehow found a way to get a stop. Though every Tennessee fan in the universe gasped when Marshall somehow threw the ball while going down on the final play and nearly completed a pass, it was already on the turf when the receiver grabbed it, and the Vols escaped Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a win and 1-0 record.
Most of the night, the hulking stadium that sits mere feet from UT’s old house of horrors — the Georgia Dome — appeared to be a new torture chamber for Vols fans. Yes, every Tennessee fan would love to be the one to push the button when they blow up the Dome this fall, but maybe Monday night was a new beginning for the Vols in Atlanta.
If so, the origin of these good vibes will be hatched from familiar frustration.
For the vast majority of the night, this felt like the beginning of the end for Vols coach Butch Jones. I bet I fired the man 100 times throughout the game in my head and my heart. I fired defensive coordinator Bob Shoop 10 times that many. I’m still not sure either one of them deserve anything other than our frustration still, but this will be no column for frustration.
This is no time for scorn.
This was a momentous victory, regardless of how much better than the Vols Georgia Tech was on Monday, how few answers UT had and how many questions the Vols have moving forward. How this team needs to be the rest of the year needs to start with the team that woke up in the fourth quarter, not only on the field but on the sideline. Bad body language permeated UT’s side of the field throughout the first few quarters. Jones looked like he didn’t want to be there and didn’t know what he was doing, quarterback Quinten Dormady sat on opposite ends of the water cooler as backup Jarrett Guarantano, neither of them doing anything resembling leadership.
Guarantano especially acted like he didn’t want to be there, pouting his way through the game. There was no fire, no excitement, not a peep like you were used to seeing last year from former Vols Joshua Dobbs talking to players up and down the sideline or Sheriron Jones waving a towel and hyping his teammates.
All that changed once the Vols started to get in a rhythm on the field. Dormady came out of shell on the field and on the sideline, and all of a sudden, it looked like he was beginning to show some of the leadership skills you want from your quarterback.
The win was meaningful, and the way the Vols won could wind up being huge for this program.
Jones cliched his way through the postgame interview, but you’ve tuned him out by now, anyway. Wins like this were meant for hyperbole. They’re inexplicable, unbelievable and hard to stomach.
But they’re fun once you win; if you win.
The Vols won Monday night. Beyond all your frustration at some of the decisions Jones made or all the difficulty Tennessee experienced, do not forget that. Don’t let what you think overshadow what you saw.
John Kelly is who we thought he was. He’s a monster hellbent on getting every morsel of yardage possible on every play. When offensive coordinator Larry Scott called the type of run plays where he excels and not those slow-developing stretch plays meant for Alvin Kamara, Kelly was the best player on the field.
Tight end Ethan Wolf dropped a couple of balls, but he also made some big plays and key catches. True freshman guard Trey Smith was the best offensive lineman UT had on the field against Tech, which is saying something considering how well center Jashon Robertson played. Yes, there were tons of miscues from tackles Marcus Tatum and Brett Kendrick, but UT got much better up front throughout the game. Junior guard Jack Jones had a nice game as well.
Then there’s sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway.
With Jauan Jennings out for an undisclosed amount of time with what looked like a wrist injury, the Vols were discombobulated in the passing game. Nothing was going on, and UT needed a weapon to emerge. That happened when Callaway took over, finishing with four catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns. The 6’2″, pass-catcher played like he was 6’6″, showing the DOG that Jennings normally does when he’s in there. He went up and got passes, turned first-down catches into 50-yard touchdowns and would not be denied.
The Vols had to have warriors step up, and Callaway did that.
Dormady grew up so much, too. Everybody wrote him off in a first half that saw him throw his share of poor passes, but he also didn’t get any help from his line or his receivers. As the Vols began to get more into a flow, the junior from Boerne, Texas, wouldn’t be denied. He wanted to make plays, it looked like he believed he was going to make them, and he did. Then, when UT had to have yards, it turned to Kelly.
Sure, there are major coaching concerns still. Jones called an inexplicable timeout as the play clock was winding down on what should have been Georgia Tech’s game-winning drive. He mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half. The jury’s still out on whether Shoop will end up deserving his $1 million annual salary, and the clock is ticking. Yes, the Yellow Jackets executed exquisitely on Monday night, but Shoop had no answers. And though first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott needs to be praised for how he called the game down the stretch, it took him far too long to get into a rhythm calling plays, and he put way too much on Dormady early when he should have slowed down the game and leaned on Kelly to help salvage some minutes for his defensive players.
All that happened, and the Vols still won. They still found a way.
With Georgia Tech putting the game away going into the end zone, Rashaan Gaulden pulled his best Malik Foreman-against-South Carolina impression and popped the ball free, giving the Vols a pivotal turnover in the fourth quarter that kept them alive.
Walk-on defensive tackle Paul Bain got his hand on the would-be, game-winning 36-yard field goal at the end of regulation, forcing the game into overtime.
Then — with guys who’d played their hearts out and got gassed like Daniel Bituli and Colton Jumper needing some sort of spark — defensive end Darrell Taylor found a way. He’d been Tennessee’s most disruptive defender most of the night, occasionally blowing up plays in the backfield for glimmers of happiness through the porous defensive performance by his team as a unit. Then, he reached down, battled off a block and made the biggest impact in the only play that mattered.
I’d be stunned (and wouldn’t believe you) if you told me you thought Tennessee was going to win that game, was going to stop that play. Again, they hadn’t stopped Georgia Tech all night. There’s no way they were going to stop them.
But they did.
And though this team gives us so much anger, so much heartache, so much frustration and anxiety and despair, they gave us something so much more valuable on Monday night:
They gave us a memory.
Now, it’s on to Neyland Stadium and Indiana State at 1-0 and with this dreadful last-gift-from-Dave-Hart debacle of a scheduling fiasco behind them. The Vols not only survived; they gave us a heart-stopping thrill.
It’s one we’ll have to remember, because I don’t think any of us want to relive that again. When it was all over, I jumped up and hugged my dad, but it wasn’t like any of those other moments I mentioned. It was out of pure, unadulterated, disbelieving relief.