Tennessee searched all over Kroger Field but could not find a way to lose.
In the beginning, the Vols couldn’t get the ball away from Kentucky. After that, the punter fumbled a snap and his punt was blocked. After that, more ordinary mistakes made life difficult – as in 13-0.
There were painful penalties, missed tackles and a lost contain from a plan the Vols had spent a week preparing.
The offense was dull. Freshman quarterback Brian Maurer, a bit rusty after assorted injuries, didn’t get much done.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt made an unusual public announcement at the end of the half that he was changing quarterbacks. Jarrett Guarantano delivered a great third quarter, seven for seven passing. Receivers made remarkable receptions. Tennessee surged ahead. There was a chance it might actually win in spite of itself. The defense was improving with age.
These Vols do make it exciting. They show a tendency to approach the edge of mean cliffs and cause the orange world to wonder if they will tumble into oblivion. A fourth-quarter fumble looked exactly like disaster.
As in the first quarter, Tennessee could not stop Lynn Bowden. The Wildcats drove methodically to the UT 2, chewing up yards and minutes. Tennessee called a pause. Pruitt gave precise instructions.
Amazing, truly amazing – when it was time to resume play, the Vols didn’t know what they were doing. There were 12 on the field.
“Half the distance to the goal” was the penalty. Tennessee was doomed. Guarantano didn’t want to watch. He covered his face but peeked between fingers on his good hand.
The Vols refused to fall off the cliff. Nope, they didn’t go down. Henry To’o To’o made the dramatic stop on third down. Daniel Bituli followed with his 19th hit. Ja’Quain Blakely and a host of Volunteers helped swarm Bowden.
It was beautiful.
Tennessee took over at the 2. Seventy-seven seconds remained. Kentucky still had a chance. It had three timeouts to stop the clock, block another kick, regain possession. The strategy failed because Guarantano made the run of his life, a splendid gain that won the game.
Good call, Jim Chaney. Guarantano said it was a designed bootleg pass with two reads, but neither was open. Jarrett circled deep and saw he was going to have to run for it. He said he didn’t fear for his hand, that his only thought was getting the first down – for the team.
“Man, we made it hard on ourselves,” Pruitt said. “Very fortunate to win, but we did. And that’s what matters.”
What we now have is really amazing, part 2. The Vols certainly aren’t all that good but they have a chance to create a November to remember. They have two chances to become small bowl eligible, two chances to transform the early disaster of Georgia State and BYU, the 1-4 start into a semi-successful season, two chances to add life to recruiting, two chances to set off at least a small celebration.
We can politely say that bad days remain part of the record, that the road has been bumpy, but the Vols have come a long way from late August to now.
“We’ve still got a lot to prove,” Pruitt said, kicking off coaching strategy for the bye week.
He recognized 5-5 is exactly where the Vols were this time last year. He vividly recalls the complete collapse against Missouri and Vanderbilt, painful memories, embarrassing.
“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish.”
Players remember the emptiness, disappointment, harsh criticism. Young ones will be told.
There was a time when beating Kentucky was no big deal. It was just something that happened sometime around Thanksgiving. In the past 41 seasons, the Vols have lost to the Wildcats only four times.
Games were not always easy. There have been epic battles. Tennessee turned this into one. The Wildcats had the ball for most of the first half and nearly all of the fourth quarter. They ran 71 plays to Tennessee’s 46. Even with the Vols knowing what was coming, Bowden rushed for 114 yards, only two short of victory.
He ran another hundred or so, back and forth, avoiding pursuit. Tennessee had no running attack.
Tennessee did present a brief post-game scene that said a lot without saying a word. Guarantano, once demoted to below zero, was again the winning relief pitcher. The younger quarterbacks (Maurer and JT Shrout) and several receivers rushed to embrace him.
I thought I saw joy, appreciation, respect and maybe brotherly love for a warrior.
Pruitt, rarely an orator, summed it up nicely: “We couldn’t have won without him.”
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is email@example.com