Amazing. Improbable. Incredible. I’m still hoarse from shouting.
Jauan Jennings, last week’s hero against Florida, wore the cape once again on Saturday by being on the receiving end of Josh Dobbs’s 43 yard prayer as time expired. But it wasn’t just the game he saved; that miracle catch made everyone forget about Malik Foreman’s defensive breakdown, it allowed the Vols to virtually wrap up the East, and it was a hobnail boot across Georgia's nose that probably caused the longtime voice of the Bulldogs, Larry Munson, to roll in his grave. But it also, perhaps most importantly, preserved the pursuit of what could end up becoming a really special Tennessee season, a year that could end up culminating in the restoration of UT to national prominence.
The emotional highs and lows of this showdown were unbelievable, starting from virtually the opening kickoff. I guess the Vols don’t care about the health or well-being of their fans, because for the 4th time this season, they fell behind by double digits in the first half. As the Vols trailed 10-0, Jalen Hurd turned what looked like an easy touchdown into a fumble when he slowed up near the goal line and got clobbered by a Georgia defensive back that he never saw coming. The ‘Dawgs converted that turnover into an 80 yard scoring drive that ended when their quarterback Jacob Eason recovered running back Sony Michel’s fumble in the end zone. Incredibly, though perfectly in line with their character, Tennessee found themselves trailing 17-0.
The breaks just never seemed to go their way all day. They couldn’t stop the UGA running attack, they suffered three back-breaking turnovers, and Hurd contracted some sort of mysterious ailment and never returned after his TD catch in the third quarter. After a while, I started to contemplate the reality that this just might not be their day.
Trailing 24-21 with less than four minutes to go, Tennessee was forced to punt back to Georgia, a kick that trapped the Bulldogs inside the five.
After stopping them for no gain on first down, the defensive line brought the pain. Derek Barnett had been held in check most of the day, but on this play, he showed off his NFL first round talent by breaking through the line and destroying Eason. a shellacking that also forced an enormous fumble. Corey Vereen pounced on the loose ball, a recovery that gave the Vols their first lead of the game.
I, of course, went nuts. As I bounded out of my seat, hugging and high-fiving my father, the, “this game is over” thought crossed my mind. So incredibly dumb in hindsight, but at the time, it made sense. After all, Tennessee had bottled up the ‘Dawgs the entire 4th quarter, and I had no reason to believe that Eason, a true freshman in the first truly pressurized moment of his career, had the stones to take UGA down the field, particularly in the face of the madmen in the Vol front four.
Eason proved me right on their very next drive, as he turned a nice kick return and manageable field position into a Malik Foreman interception. If Barnett’s forced fumble left any doubt, then Foreman’s pick should’ve sealed it. It did, at least in my mind. There was no way Tennessee was going to lose this game. They were going to escape AGAIN, this time from Athens, despite another first half mail-in.
But then, in the most Derek Dooley way possible, it happened. Georgia forced a three and out, and got the ball back with 67 seconds left. That drive was an absolute nightmare. All of the sudden, Tennessee couldn’t force pressure. They couldn’t break through the Bulldog O-line, and Eason was able drop back and settle into a comfortable pocket, one that enabled him to show off his world class arm.
With 19 seconds left, and the ball on the Volunteer 47 yard line, Eason and Malik Foreman combined to give me one of the worst gut punches of my entire life. I don’t know why this happened, but Foreman just stopped running and allowed Riley Ridley to get behind him for a soul-crushing TD bomb. In the span of five minutes, Foreman had transformed from the hero of the game to a poor man’s Bill Buckner.
I couldn’t believe that happened, and I made an incoherent screaming sound as my hands found the top of my head. Not again. No way. They aren’t supposed to lose this way anymore. This always happens.
There’s no way to accurately describe how you feel when it appears that the team you’ve rooted for since you could walk just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Tennessee’s had more than its fair share of heart-breakers the last eight years, but this was about to top all of them. There wasn’t any realistic way it could be worse than this.
They needed a miracle; fortunately the ‘Dawgs were more than willing to help in the potential creation of one. UGA committed two costly penalties in the immediate aftermath of their touchdown, an unsportsmanlike conduct after their score, and an offside on ensuing the kickoff. Those penalties, coupled with Evan Berry’s nice return, placed the ball at the Georgia 43 yard line with 4 seconds left.
“Hail Mary’s” are amongst the most memorable plays in all of football, but the major factor that creates their legendary stature is the rarity of their success. For every one that’s completed, there are a hundred that fail to bear fruit.
The improbably of it made it that much sweeter. Jennings created space for himself in the end zone and out-jumped everyone for what might be the most spectacular and unbelievable touchdown in the history of the program. I high-fived my dad so hard my hand stung for two hours, and my voice was strained by constant screams of joy.
As I whirled back to look at the TV, I saw Butch bent over on one knee, sobbing uncontrollably. Now I’m not normally a big crier, particularly when it comes to sports, but witnessing his raw emotion in the immediate aftermath of the greatest win of his life caused even me choke up a little bit. I had to bend over and compose myself before standing back up to continue my celebration.
I hate to rain on this parade, because I’m as giddy as anyone, but wouldn’t it be nice if Tennessee could put together two solid halves? Geez, I don’t know if I’ll make it through this season alive if they keep spotting everyone double digit leads in the first half. Make no mistake, they’ve been the luckiest team in the country by far the first five weeks of the season. They’re 5-0 for the first time since ’98, but what would’ve been a disappointing 2-3 start is probably just as likely. Is it too much to ask for them to actually show up for the first thirty minutes at A&M next week? Regardless, it's a hell of win, one that I'll never forget for as long as I live.
I wrote last Saturday that the Florida game was the best win of my entire life. Who knew it would be topped just a week later? The constant shifting of emotions throughout the game, coupled with the shocking finish helped this one surpass the joy I felt last week when Tennessee finally shattered their Gator glass ceiling.
We were due one like this, weren’t we? After all the heartbreak, all the bad luck, and the Dooley years, the football gods owed us one. I’m happy they finally cashed in on that debt.