Nov. 19, 2011
(5-6, 2-6 SEC)
(5-6, 1-6 SEC)
BY DREW EDWARDS
KNOXVILLE -- Twice last season, Tennessee celebrated in vain. First at LSU, then in the Music City Bowl against North Carolina, joy turned into gut-punch losses.
On Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, Tennessee celebrated in the south end zone, only to have it interrupted for an official review.
But only interrupted.
Officials eventually ruled that the Vols' game-winning interception return was good for a touchdown, giving Tennessee a 27-21 victory over Vanderbilt and moving it one step closer to clinching a bowl berth.
"The black cloud over Knoxville blew away tonight, and we got a little sunshine," UT coach Derek Dooley said.
But for a minute, it looked like the Vols might get caught in another downpour.
During the first possession of overtime, UT defensive back Eric Gordon intercepted Jordan Rodgers' pass, stumbled and continued 90 yards down the far sideline for a touchdown.
Officials initially said Gordon fumbled the ball and recovered it with his knee on the ground. In a flash, Tennessee's players ended their celebration in the southwest corner of the stadium and started clamoring for Dooley to challenge the call.
Following the game, Dooley pointed out that rules prohibit a coach from challenging whether or not a runner was down. But because officials didn't stop the play, it was eligible for an official review.
Moments later, the Vols were celebrating again. In the press box, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney skipped to the elevator in a rush to join the Vols in the locker room.
"We finally got a break!" Chaney yelled.
Tennessee got more than one -- and made a few more along the way.
After jumping out to a 14-7 lead at halftime in Tyler Bray's return to the field after missing five games with a broken thumb, the Vols' second-half woes appeared to set in again.
On the Vols' second possession of a scoreless third quarter, Vandy linebacker Archibald Barnes intercepted Bray in the end zone and returned it 100 yards to tie the game at 14-14.
Then, after pinning the Vols deep in their own territory, Vanderbilt took a 21-14 when Rodgers found Chris Boyd for a 20-yard touchdown pass with 12:21 remaining.
Tennessee, now 5-6 and 1-6 in SEC play, answered right back, with a heavy dose of the run -- and the kind of good fortune that hasn't exactly been a regular occurrence this season.
After UT's drive, which began at its 20-yard line, stalled at the Vandy 5, Michael Palardy came on for a 23-yard field goal attempt. The kick appeared to be blocked, but Vandy's Sean Richardson was flagged for running into the kicker.
Vandy coach James Franklin challenged the call, asserting that Richardson had in fact touched the ball.
Officials upheld their initial ruling on the field, even if Dooley offered a different assessment after the game.
"It wasn't a block. It was a kick up the center's tail," he said. "We got a break there. I couldn't put the field goal team out there again after that. I just wanted to go for it."
So on fourth down, Da'Rick Rogers hauled in a pass from Bray with one hand to tie the game at 21-21 with 6:27 left in regulation.
"At that point, I was just thinking this is the first blocked kick I've ever been excited for," said Rogers, whose 116-yard performance against the Commodores pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. "Thank God (Dooley) put the offense back on the field."
Tennessee's defense stole the show the rest of the way.
After the teams traded punts, Vanderbilt took over with 2:02 left and promptly moved to the UT 40 with a little less than a minute remaining. On second down, Prentiss Waggner intercepted Rodgers and ended any chance of a Vanderbilt win in regulation.
Moments later -- a couple of them agonizingly long -- the Vols were celebrating Gordon's dramatic dash to the end zone and the first defensive touchdown in overtime since Ohio defeated Pitt on an interception return TD in 2005.
And a team that has struggled in the second half of SEC games all season finally had a performance to remember in the last 30 minutes.
"This is the first game it's been a one-score game in the fourth quarter," Dooley said. "I was worried how we would handle it. We handled it beautifully. We kept fighting and won the fourth quarter."
It wasn't always pretty, though.
Tennessee struggled at times on punts, and Palardy's low field goal attempt wasn't one for the highlight reel. Fighting through pain in his right thumb, Bray was just 16-for-33 for 189 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns.
"It was horrible," Bray said of his performance. "I think I completed more passes to the other team than I did to ours."
But several of the Vols' 16 seniors made a huge impact in their final game at Neyland Stadium.
Tauren Poole, along with a more physical performance from the offensive line, helped awaken the Vols' foundering ground game with 107 rushing yards and a touchdown. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson forced a fumble that led to Tennessee's first touchdown of the game, and linebacker Austin Johnson picked off his team-best fourth pass in five games.
The result was a victory over Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-6 SEC), which many favored to win, and a continued chance to become bowl eligible with a win at Kentucky on Saturday (TV: SEC Network, 12:21 p.m. ET).
"I tell you, I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a football team in all my years," Dooley said. "It was just a great win."