I’m going to, briefly, take you somewhere you probably don’t want to go if you’re a Tennessee fan reading this article. Stick with me because the point is to prove that Vol fans may have seen the most important play of the year on Saturday from one of the most unlikely players.
With 1:58 remaining in Tennessee’s eventual 38-31 win over Georgia on Saturday, Tennessee faced a fourth and inches from its own 44. Georgia had one timeout remaining. Go for it, get the few inches, and the game is over after a couple kneel downs.
Instead, Butch Jones, after sending the offense out to try to draw Georgia offsides, elected to send the punt team out with the hopes of pinning Georgia deep. This was the result:
The punt of the decade from Trevor Daniel. "Like it had eyes," – Gary Danielson https://t.co/esUaDFAm7E
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) October 12, 2015
But to truly appreciate what may have been the punt of the decade, you have to think about what happened next for Georgia.
The Bulldogs, backed up to their own goal line, marched down the field in impressive fashion over the next 1:5o against a suspect UT defense. Georgia, with just one timeout, advanced all the way to the UT 23-yard line. After a penalty set them five yards back from there, they still had a decent, albeit low-percentage, throw to the end zone for a chance to tie the game.
That means the Bulldogs showed that they had the capability to move the ball 76 yards in that time period. Now imagine the alternative if the punt hadn’t gone as it did.
Say Daniel didn’t hit it well or let UGA return it and gave Georgia the ball anywhere outside the Georgia 23-yard line. Georgia showed the capability to move the ball at a rate that would’ve resulted in a soul-crushing and game-tying touchdown. Even if that ball rolls one more yard, hits the pylon or goes into the end zone, the following results showed that Georgia could’ve advanced inside the 10, setting up a significantly higher-percentage play for the late tie.
Imagine the fallout for Butch Jones and Tennessee if the Bulldogs completed the drive on a shorter field and then took that momentum to overtime (or gone for two) and pulled out the win.
Another conservative call, another late meltdown and Tennessee would have headed into the bye week with a trip to Alabama looming with a 2-4 record and massive questions about the future – and the coach – of the program.
Jones would’ve received criticism, fair or not, regardless if Tennessee lost the game in any scenario at the end. Go for it and don’t get it on fourth down, and that would’ve fallen on him too. But with the main critique of Jones centering on his tendency to follow the charts and analytics, and the growing narrative heading into the game that he coaches too tight and conservative for UT to win big, the criticism for Jones had the Vols lost the game after not going for that fourth down would’ve been absolutely crushing for him and the program.
But in such a results-oriented business, the end does justify the means. Jones trusted Daniel to do his job, and he did it in spectacular fashion. And that’s why that play, at that time and in this particular season, was maybe the best thing that could’ve happened for Jones and UT.
“I was going to go out there and punt the best I could, and just do my job, and try to set up the defense as best as possible, and it was just a good ball,” Daniel said following the game.
It was more than just a good ball. It might have saved the game, and the season, for the Vols.