He just knows he won’t be saying goodbye.
There were two options for the next time the Vols got together, according to Butch Jones: Either discussing bowl plans or saying goodbye. After picking up their sixth win of the season, Lane, and the rest of the team, gets to delay their good-byes for at least a few more weeks and will find out what the postseason tastes like.
“I’m just going to smile and keep going,” said Lane, who filled in for an injured Jalen Hurd (upper-body injury) and finished UT’s 24-17 win with 51 yards on 16 carries. “I get another month with this group of guys and I just want to enjoy every moment with them.”
It was an opportunity that was almost stolen away by a Vanderbilt (3-9) team that had a mission of its own to ruin its in-state rivals’ bowl aspirations. Playing in front of a partial UT crowd in their own stadium, the Commodores made it interesting for four quarters, never allowing the Vols to get up by more than two scores and even possessing the ball, down just seven points with a chance to drive the field to tie, or win, with a last-minute touchdown.
Tennessee’s defense stood tall, stopping Vandy before it could advance too far into Vols’ territory and forcing a fourth-down incompletion that ended VU’s chances. It preserved what was far from the win that many fans envisioned, but a victory that did the job none the less.
“I thought this game kind of summarized our season,” Jones said. “Great resiliency – we found a way to win the football game. We always talk about impactful plays impacting the game and I thought our special teams were outstanding.”
The great special teams were highlighted by a 76-yard punt return by Cam Sutton that put the Vols (6-6) up 7-0 with 8:18 remaining in the first quarter. That, in addition to a 36-yard field goal by Aaron Medley later in the quarter, gave Tennessee a 10-0 cushion early that they would need as the game dragged on.
“We always talk about complimentary football in our program,” said Sutton. “You know, the offense was struggling early in the game and special teams were able to capitalize and get the game going.”
“We felt very confident coming in that we were going to get a big return,” Jones added. “We’ve been one or two individuals away. Everyone did their job and Cam provided that spark and momentum early for us. We needed it.”
Tennessee’s explosive offense that showed up against the likes of South Carolina and Kentucky in the past few weeks wasn’t there on a consistent basis against the Commodores. Injuries clearly played a role in that. Playing without Hurd, their leading rusher, for much of the game and missing other key cogs such as receiver Marquez North, center Mack Crowder and with an extremely limited Jason Croom, the Vols had to ask several others to step up.
That also meant Tennessee needed more from quarterback Joshua Dobbs. The sophomore finished with just 92 yards passing and two interceptions, but did contribute two touchdowns and 91 yards on the ground, including several key late runs to help milk the clock at the end.
“Obviously we have some things to clean up,” said Dobbs. “We were able to move the ball at times and were able to go down and put it in the end zone and the defense had our backs all night and were able to hold them to less points than we scored, so we got the ball and we’re definitely excited about that.”
“He found a way to win a football game,” Jones said of Dobbs. “That’s critical from our quarterback position. Yeah, we need to talk about some of the errant throws and taking care of the football and I thought he pressed for the first time. I thought Josh was trying to make some plays – and he’s a competitor – but when we needed him down the stretch, he stepped up and he delivered.”
Tennessee’s defense wasn’t perfect, but as was the theme of the night for UT, it did enough to get Tennessee the win. The Vols turned Vanderbilt over three times, but perhaps none were bigger than an athletic play by freshman Todd Kelly Jr., who, while filling in for Brian Randolph for a few plays when he limped off, was able to get his toe in bounds to secure an interception on a drive that Vandy could’ve tied the game on.
Tennessee then took the ball 75 yards the other direction on the ensuing drive, with an 8-yard touchdown run by Dobbs capping off a score that put the Vols back up by 14 – a lead that Vandy was never fully able to overcome.
“TK’s interception in the 3rd quarter – great play and we capitalized – scored a touchdown off of that,” Jones said.
There will be plenty to break down and correct in the coming weeks for the Vols in addition to many bumps and bruises that will need to be healed A close win against a team that hadn’t come within double-digits of any other SEC opponents this year was far from convincing, but that wasn’t UT’s focus after the game.
It was the fact that they will be able to make those corrections – the fact that there are more meetings and no good-byes to be said at this point.
“They didn’t want it to end,” Jones said. “We talked about our life expectancy and fighting to live two, three more weeks. I told them we had a team meeting Monday at three o’clock. It could be to go over our bowl schedule or it could be goodbye. And it kind of hit them. They said ‘coach we don’t want to say goodbye.’
“Again, this group has been resilient all year.”