By Joe Rector
With seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Hendon Hooker attempted to hand off the ball to Jabari Small. The running back thought Hooker would pull the ball and either throw or run it. The result was the ball lying on the ground until Alabama player Dallas Turner scooped it up and crossed the goal line to give the Tide a 49-42 lead.
Curses and moans from fans and the clicking of televisions to off could be heard throughout Knoxville, even though 102,000 fans sat in stunned silence. If Tennessee fans are honest, they’ll admit that they thought the game was over right then and there. Why shouldn’t they? The past years, 15 to be exact, had produced some excruciating losses to Alabama. Even when Tennessee had a bit of hope, something occurred to allow the crimson opponent to pull a victory out. I admit that that fumble broke my spirit.
It’s a good thing that the miscue didn’t suck all the hope out of the team and its coaches. Tennessee managed to tie the score, withstand a 50-yard missed field goal, and take 13 seconds to move 45 yards so that placekicker Chase McGrath could boot a 40-yard field goal not only to win the game but to also end the streak of losses to Alabama.
We learned plenty about this team from what is surely the game of the year and possibly the greatest game in UT football history. For one, these players aren’t quitters. They hang in games and play hard. They expect to win, and sheer determination often helps them to turn the odds back in their favor.
They’ve worked hard to improve the defense. No longer are orange players a step slow, too weak, or utterly confused about assignments. The number of times they hurried or sacked Heisman Trophy winner Brice Young testifies to that, as does the gang tackling that often snuffed out a promising play. In the end, when a tackle was needed, someone stepped up and made it. The secondary still looks green and gives up too many completions, yet when the Tide needed a completion to continue a game-winning drive, somebody used his athleticism to break up the play.
Fans were treated to competition between the two best quarterbacks in the country. Both excelled in passing and running. However, Hendon Hooker might have become the leading candidate for the Heisman with five touchdown passes, all to the same receiver, Jalin Hyatt. He threw for 385 yards and ran for 56 against one of the best defenses in the country.
The demeanors of the coaches spoke loudest of all. When Alabama players made mistakes, Coach Saban exploded in anger and cursed at them and yelled in their faces, effectively belittling players in front of a national television audience. When Tennessee players made goofs, Coach Heupel maintained his cool and gave them pats and words of encouragement. Heupel is a player’s coach who expects the highest quality performances from his players, but he offers positive words with his criticism and coaching.
I saw somewhere that more than 100 recruits for various sports were at this game. Those guests witnessed a fantastic game between a traditional and an up-and-coming powerhouse program. They might have also noticed that the team clad in orange was confident and talented. Most of all, those high school athletes had a chance to watch college players have fun while they played the biggest game of the season. Is that enough for them to choose Tennessee as their college football home?