Tennessee players and coaches erupted as if they had won the lottery after scratching out a victory with a pick-six and a kick-six against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Eric Gordon’s game-winning 90-yard interception return in overtime was whistled dead and wrongly revived with further review. Fate also smiled on the Vols with a strange running-into-the-kicker penalty on a blocked Tennessee field goal attempt late in the game.
The Commodores appeared to have maintained their 21-14 lead with 6 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Michael Palardy’s 22-yard field goal attempt was kicked low toward linemen. Any number of players might have touched the ball, but the one diving into Palardy’s foot, Sean Richardson, didn’t.
So the Vols had a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line instead of Vandy gaining possession, and unwilling to watch Palardy kick again — “I couldn’t put the field goal team back out there after that,” UT coach Derek Dooley said — Dooley had Tyler Bray throw a game-tying TD pass to Da’Rick Rogers.
Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin was still trying to digest the field goal and the whistle that was ignored while reviewing the game’s final play shortly after the Commodores had snatched yet another loss to Tennessee from the jaws of victory. (The Vols have now won 28 of the last 29 in the series.)
“Every obscure rule that could possibly … We blocked the field goal to win the game,” Franklin said. “They said we ran into the kicker. I didn’t know you could rough the kicker when you block the field goal, but it has to be the same person.”
Franklin needed the officials to go to the letter of the law again when Gordon’s game-winning interception return was whistled dead – but they didn’t this time.
“They blew him down,” Franklin said, “but they said – they explained to me why you can do that and the play can still count.”
Franklin was presumably being sarcastic, and officials explained Sunday that they got the call wrong by reviewing a play that’d been blown dead. Frankly, it would’ve been a greater injustice if Gordon’s TD had been denied by an erroneous whistle. No Commodore was going to prevent him from scoring.
Tennessee can empathize with Vanderbilt. The Vols’ surreal losses last year to LSU and North Carolina and in 2009 at Alabama seemed nearby while watching the Commodores writhe in the agony of a slow-motion death.
The Vols were due some breaks. Along with those unlucky losses last year, they lost leading receiver Justin Hunter to a knee injury in the first quarter at Florida in September, and Bray had missed five games with a fractured thumb before his victorious return against Vandy.
Maybe the worm is beginning to turn, although you hate to make too much out of an ugly, lucky home win against Vanderbilt. Indeed, the FCC would own his home by now if ESPN’s Lee Corso had been commentating on the mistake-marred matchup.
Among the what-the-heck moments: Tennessee burned a timeout on 3rd-and-39 because there were apparently 10 men on the field, and an illegal formation penalty followed the timeout; Palardy kicked off out of bounds to give Vandy the ball at its 40 with 6:27 remaining after Tennessee had tied the score at 21; Vanderbilt had 12 players on the field after a timeout.
Any number of plays could sum up decades of this series, including Gordon’s game-winner or Prentiss Waggner’s difficult interception when Vandy was nearing game-winning field goal range with 20 seconds left in regulation. But athletic quarterback Justin Rodgers tackling himself by stumbling to the ground when he was going to convert a third-down on a bootleg run did it best.
Bray had his moments, too. He threw two interceptions in two-plus quarters, which is how many he’d thrown in the first five games. And he could’ve easily had two others intercepted.
Apparently frustrated during the 100-yard return on one of his interceptions, Bray even went low at a Commodore. He was penalized.
“The first guy came and tried to hit me,” Bray said, “and when the second one came I was like ‘Eh, no, I’ll take the penalty,’ and I just took his knee out.”
Bray wasn’t making excuses about interceptions.
“I mean you can blame it on rust; it’s not, though,” Bray said. “It’s just me throwing it to the other team. … I played horrible.”
That’s an overstatement. Bray made enough big plays and several effective throws from a variety of angles while under duress. One sidearm release to Rogers was worth a smile.
Now, the only thing standing – feebly wobbling – between Bray-led Tennessee and a bowl is Kentucky. UT has beaten the Wildcats every year since 1984, and this UK team is probably as bad as any that have built the streak. Kentucky has been outscored 194-38 in losses to Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia.
It looks like Tennessee onces again has much to be thankful for in the final two weeks of the season, including not being home for the holidays.