By Steve Williams
Tennessee’s performance in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl was much like its regular season. An ugly start with a beautiful ending.
The Vols got inside Indiana’s 10-yardline on their first two possessions Thursday night and came away with three points.
UT fans were feeling down in the dumps, much like they did after the Vols were stunned by Georgia State in the season opener and then letting BYU slip by them in regulation and beat them in overtime in Week 2.
But these Vols again cleaned up their mess. Trailing by 13 points with less than five minutes remaining in the game, Tennessee rallied for a 23-22 win in Jacksonville.
We should have known they would. It’s the same bunch that came back from 1-4 to earn a bowl trip in the first place, when most fans didn’t think there was any way they could win six games to become bowl eligible.
No, they won seven, including their last five in a row to post a 7-5 regular season record. And when you add to it the bowl win, this bunch, in my opinion, had the best turnaround in school history – even better than the 0-6 to 5-6 finish in 1988.
After the game, a TV reporter asked second-year UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt how the Vols came back from that 1-4.
“They never quit and they put on more steam,” answered Pruitt and adding one of General Neyland’s famous axioms.
In the days before UT’s bowl game last week, I heard a wise, old football coach discuss the importance of scoring touchdowns in the “red zone,” or inside the 20.
“When a team is held to a field goal, it’s considered a win for the defense and a loss for the offense.”
It was certainly feeling like a loss was in the works for Tennessee fans in the beginning. But the Vols eventually made up for it with their resilience.
An Indiana quarterback named after former UT and Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning sensed blood in the water when the Hoosiers scored late in the first half and went into the dressing room trailing only 6-3.
Indiana indeed went ahead and led 16-6 when Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, continuing to struggle, was briefly pulled from the game reportedly “to calm down.” True freshman Brian Maurer replaced him for one series.
Coach Pruitt’s call for a successful onside kick late in the game swung the pendulum Tennessee’s way. Many already are suggesting it will become part of UT football lore.
Just prior to the call for the onside kick, Pruitt made another move that paid off. He inserted 6-1, 246-pound Quavaris Crouch into the game and the big back, out of the I formation, scored from the 1. That pulled the Vols to within 22-16. It was a one-possession game with 4:21 to go.
On Paxton Brooks’ well-executed onside kick, the Hoosiers apparently never noticed Eric Gray, Tennessee’s quick as lightning running back, was on the field. His recovery gave UT new life.
After Guarantano’s 27-yard pass to Jauan Jennings plus a face mask penalty moved the ball to the 16-yard line, Gray raced down the middle of the field for the tying TD and Brent Cimaglia’s PAT kick gave the Vols the lead.
Now it was on the back of the Tennessee defense.
Indiana just needed a field goal and the Hoosiers would get two more chances to score. First, their kicker hooked a 52-yard field goal attempt to the right with 2:12 to go.
Indiana would get the ball back at its 19-yard line with 0:55 on the clock. Ramsey completed two passes to move the Hoosiers to the Tennessee 45. UT fans were on the edge of their seats. Some probably couldn’t bear to watch at all.
Two more passes fall incomplete. On fourth-and-10 with 23 seconds remaining, Pruitt called a timeout before the snap after checking Indiana’s formation.
Ramsey fired long, but under threw his receiver.
In victory formation, Guarantano took a knee.
And our Volunteers took a bow.