Whatever. It. Takes.
That was the theme all week for Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 SEC). The Vols couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to demonstrate that they would do whatever it would take to beat South Carolina.
“It was amazing,” said linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin after the Vols completed a 45-42 comeback victory in overtime. “The theme of the game was ‘do whatever it takes.’ When it came down to it, we made plays and made it happen. It feels like we’re getting over that hump. We made plays and had guys step up and make plays in big situations.”
Led by sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who was making his first start of the season, the Vols never gave up despite several bleak moments.
Jalen Hurd capped a quick scoring drive when he caught a screen pass, broke a tackle that would’ve dropped him short of the first down and powered into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown that cut the SC lead to 35-28 with 6:34 remaining.
“I just kept thinking back to whatever it takes,” said Hurd, who finished the game with 125 yards rushing and 58 yards receiving. “We busted our butts throughout this week getting ready for this game. Even in the Alabama game, we were down, but we didn’t give up at all.”
“Huge,” Jones said of that play by Hurd. “I’ve been saying it all along. Jalen is a very unselfish player. His skill set, we see that everyday in practice, but his skill set hasn’t been able to be seen in game opportunities. That was a great run and his skill set was shown tonight.”
But after Brandon Wilds ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run that could’ve been a dagger, the Vols looked all but done on a chilly night in Columbia. The Vols had already seen a 21-14 lead evaporate. Do-everything athlete Pharoh Cooper had already set a single-game receiving record (233 yards) and had hurt the Vols receiving, rushing and passing.
The Vols still weren’t done, however. Dobbs quickly engineered a 75-yard drive that he finished with a 3-yard touchdown keeper to get it back to one score with just under two minutes remaining. And after a failed onside kick that was recovered by, of course, Cooper, South Carolina needed just one first down to end the game.
The Gamecocks faced a third-and-four situation, but that was when UT’s defense, which was shredded for 42 points and 625 yards throughout the course of the game, found a whole new level.
Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett sacked quarterback Dylan Thompson to force a punt on the next play. The Vols took over at their own 15 with 1:23 remaining and no timeouts remaining. That’s when Dobbs, who finished the game with 301 passing yards, 166 rushing yards and five total touchdowns, really got to work. He threw rocket after rocket, guiding the Vols down the field with his arm and a few timely runs. The Vols made it into SC territory, then into the red zone and finally inside the 10.
The Gamecocks brought the house with 15 seconds left on the clock. Dobbs rolled right, hit a wide open Jason Croom in the end zone and an Aaron Medley extra point tied the game at 42 with just 11 seconds remaining in regulation.
“Being down by 14 with four or five minutes left in the game, there was never a doubt we were going to win this football game,” Jones said.
And come overtime, the Vols played with that level of confidence. After getting the ball first, the Vols converted one first down before settling for a field goal. Medley, despite kicking in the swirling wind and missing two field goals earlier, drilled a 32-yarder to give the Vols a 45-42 lead. The defense took over even more from that point.
The Vols took Thompson down for a sack on both first and second down, pushing SC back to its own 40. Pressure then forced a throw-away on third down.
“There was just a little different push in overtime,” said Jones. “That’s what great players do. They step up in critical moments and critical stages of the game. We always talk about impacting the game, and they impact the game.”
A last-ditch 57-yard field goal by Elliott Fry fell well short, triggering a massive celebration between the team and UT fans than made the trip. Players described it as a party in the locker room.
“Well, I haven’t even had time to catch my breath,” Jones said upon entering the media room. “But what can I say about this football team? Our perseverance, our resiliency was rewarded tonight.”
Again, they did whatever it took.