Tennessee almost topped themselves again yesterday. Almost.
After the Vols fumbled on their opening possession of the second half, and Texas A&M turned it into points and a 28-7 lead, I gave up on the game. I thought it was over, and I sent my father the following concession text: “Too many injuries and too many mistakes. We're onto Alabama”. I was ready to chalk it up as an extremely poor, undeniably unlikely performance in an unbelievably hostile environment. It just wasn’t their day. I plan on watching Tennessee for the rest of my life, and I doubt I’ll ever see them have seven turnovers in a game again. And when you add in the ungodly amount of defensive injuries, it’s amazing that Team 120 was able to make it as competitive as they did.
The Cortez McDowell-Danny O’Brien injury combo was an absolute back-breaker for the Vols. Both guys went down in the 4th quarter, and it absolutely destroyed their already suspect rush defense. After those guys went down, A&M ended the game with a Trevor Knight 62 yard TD run, a Trayveon Williams long dash that was snuffed out by an incredible play from Malik Foreman, a less-than-a-minute drive that ended with a missed short field goal, a field goal, and another Trevor Knight TD run. Eventually, they were just so undermanned and worn down that they couldn’t get off the field. Colton Jumper tries as hard as he can, but he’s no Jalen Reeves-Maybin. And it’s obvious that the secondary really misses Cam Sutton’s presence. Bob Shoop told Gary Danielson before the game that his biggest concern was A&M throwing over the top of their corners, and he was right; they got burned all day. McDowell was already a backup to Darrin Kirkland, meaning they were forced to go to their third stringer late in an extremely important road conference game. Awesome.
The turnovers and mistakes were absolutely soul-crushing. Alvin Kamara had a 50+ yard reception that had the Vols inside the 10 nullified by a fumble, and John Kelly inexplicably laid it on the ground in the red zone in the second half. Josh Dobbs fumbled twice, threw the game ending interception, and tossed another pick when Jason Croom forgot how to catch the ball. Even Evan Berry even lost one, as he dropped the ball on a kickoff return, a play which saw him get murdered in the facemask on what should’ve been a targeting penalty against A&M. And as much as I loved the hit by Nigel Warrior, his targeting penalty wiped out a huge Kamara punt return.
Eventually, making a zillion first half mistakes per game, playing around with 20 point deficits, and having a roster filled with more wounded guys than the Battle of Antietam was going to catch up with this team. It’s tough to come back from one double digit deficit against a conference opponent; doing it back-to-back weeks was incredible; asking them to do it three times in a row is probably impossible.
I’m never going to be satisfied or proud when they lose, but I was certainly impressed with the amazing level of heart and resolve they showed in fighting back and never giving up. They could’ve very easily won this game if they turned it over five times instead of seven. Somehow, they lost the turnover battle by four on the road against a top 8 team and still almost won. Tennessee moved the ball all day, gaining 684 total yards, the most A&M has ever given in a game. Kamara was a god, playing the best game of his life, as he torched the Aggies for 127 rushing yards, 161 receiving yards, and three total touchdowns.
Unfortunately, his performance will probably be forgotten because they lost, just like Foreman’s come-from-behind forced fumble through the side of the end zone. If Tennessee wins that game, Malik’s play goes down as one of the greatest in Vol history, joining the Dobbsnail Boot, Dale Jones’s interception against ‘Bama in 1985, the Clint Stoerner fumble, James Wilhoit's kick against Florida in '04, and Peyton Manning's 80 yarder to Joey Kent against Alabama in '95, along with a whole host of others.
Losing, particularly in the fashion they did, is absolutely devastating. It sucks. I literally couldn’t write this last night because I was so defeated emotionally. I thought the game was over like four separate times, but the Vols kept making play after play after play to keep themselves in it. I didn’t think there was any way they’d lose after Foreman’s poke. No one makes a play like that to keep their team in the game. The football gods had to be on our side, right? They’d done more than enough to get blown out, but somehow, they were still in it. They’d pulled it out of their butt all year. It was going to happen again. And then it didn’t.
It’s not the end of the world, and the season could still end up where we all wanted it to be, with an SEC Title and a playoff spot, but the ‘Bama game next Saturday has now turned into the most important Third Saturday in October in a long time. This is the fourth straight game against a ranked opponent. Will Tennessee have anything left in the tank, both physically and emotionally? Who knows? For the sake of Vol Nation, the season, my liver, and my sanity, I hope they do.