When a 70-yard Reggie Davis punt return touchdown made the score 24-3 with a little over three minutes to play in the first half, a dubious stillness pervaded Neyland. It looked like the Vols were unraveling before our eyes.
I’ll be honest, I thought they were done.
Headed into the game, a tense debate about how Butch Jones treats his players was the talk of local and national media. That discussion didn’t even touch Tennessee’s on-the-field struggles. In the last month, the Volunteers suffered three consecutive spectacular defeats to FBS teams – all the losses coming after the Vols held a double-digit lead. Jones became the butt of jokes about coaching conservatively and blowing leads across the nation during that span.
And all of that appeared to be taking its toll on the team. During the open portions of Tennessee’s practice on Tuesday, the energy that typically drives practices under Jones was nowhere to be found.
Against that backdrop, a 21-point deficit to a talented rival simply had to be seen as insurmountable.
A 46-yard kick return from Evan Berry got things rolling for Tennessee on the next possession. The Vols converted twice (!) on fourth down during an 8 play, 53-yard scoring drive that may have saved the season. After that touchdown, a 39-yard pass from Joshua Dobbs to Josh Smith on 4th and 8, I watched Dobbs walk over to Butch Jones on the sideline and give him a reassuring pat on the back. Jones acknowledged his quarterback with a knowing and confident head nod – the Vols were back in business.
Tennessee forced a fumble on the ensuing kick return, recovered it and quickly scored to cut the deficit to 24-17 headed into halftime.
Neyland had life again and the Vols had momentum.
A Joshua Dobbs touchdown run tied it in the third quarter before a Dobbs pass to Alvin Kamara gave Tennessee a 31-24 lead. In true Vol fashion, that lead disappeared just seven seconds into the fourth quarter when Greyson Lambert connected with Reggie Davis for a 48-yard touchdown.
It would have been easy – understandable, even – for the Vols to play with the same “here we go again” mentality that has plagued the program for the better part of a decade. Joshua Dobbs and the rest of the Vols made sure that didn’t happen. A gutsy 5-yard touchdown run from Dobbs gave Tennessee the lead and the Vol defense held on for the win.
With the odds stacked against them, there was no quit in these Vols.
That’s been an underrated staple of Butch Jones’ tenure.
During his first year at Tennessee, the Vols lost a heartbreaker to Vanderbilt to eliminate them from bowl eligibility. With their preseason goal of returning to postseason play squashed, the Vols had to travel to Lexington to play what many dubbed as a meaningless game. But it wasn’t meaningless to the coaching staff or players – that much was clear on the way to a 27-14 victory. Then there’s the matter of Tennessee’s historic win over South Carolina last year. With the season on the line, the Vols pulled off the most dramatic comeback victory in program history. Ten games later, Jones’ Vols added the third largest come-from-behind win in Vol history to the record books.
Justifiable critiques have been aimed at Jones in recent weeks, but no one can claim his team lacks fight. Under Jones, Tennessee has undeniably been at its best when the odds seem insurmountable.
As the head coach receives blame when his team loses, he should receive credit when his team keeps fighting and picks up a prized win over a divisional rival.