With under five minutes to go in the game, Tennessee trailed Indiana 22-9 while facing a third-and-goal from the one-yard line. Up to that point, the Vols hadn’t scored a touchdown all night, and they had come away with two field goals in three previous red zone trips in the game.
But freshman linebacker Quavaris Crouch came in for the Vols’ jumbo package, and he would not be denied. And somehow, four and a half minutes later, Tennessee came away victorious.
Tennessee (8-5) rallied from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to beat Indiana (8-5) 23-22 in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. The Vols didn’t score a touchdown until the 4:21 mark in the fourth quarter, then they scored two in a matter of 30 seconds of game time to erase a 22-9 Hoosier lead and turn it into a 23-22 advantage themselves.
Jarrett Guarantano played poorly for most of the night, but he came on when it mattered most, orchestrating a 10-play scoring drive to give the Vols their first touchdown. Then, UT recovered a surprise onside kick, and it took them three plays and an Eric Gray 16-yard touchdown run to grab back the lead, their first since the second quarter.
The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, in many ways, was a microcosm of Tennessee’s 2019 season. After a lackluster start and when all hope seemed lost, the Vols found a way to emerge on the right side of things.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s comeback victory in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
The Improbability of It All
When Indiana went up 22-9 with 10:27 to go in the game, it looked like the Hoosiers had the game in the bag. And the win probability agreed with that.
Per ESPN’s win probability metric, Indiana had a 97.6 percent chance of victory when they were up by 13 with 9:22 to go, and it remained at 94.7 percent after a Jarrett Guarantano incompletion in the red zone with 5:32 to go.
But that’s when things changed.
Tennessee fought towards the goal line, and they brought in linebacker Quavaris Crouch for a one-yard touchdown run. The Vols then called a surprise onside kick and recovered it just after it went 10 yards. Tennessee scored a touchdown on that possession as well, as Eric Gray ran it in from 16 yards out.
The Vols’ extra point gave them a 23-22 lead. If Indiana had not missed an extra point in the third quarter, the game would’ve been tied.
Instead, Tennessee — somehow — picked up the victory.
Tennessee had a lot go wrong, but they had just enough go their way to win. And what a win it was.
Finally, an Onside Kick Recovery
In 2018, Jeremy Pruitt called several onside kicks in multiple games for the Vols. Every single one of them failed despite the kicks catching the opposing teams off guard. Whether it was an unlucky bounce, a failed grab, or just a good heads up play by the opponent, Tennessee was unsuccessful in every onside kick they had attempted under Jeremy Pruitt so far in his tenure as head coach.
That finally changed on Thursday.
Paxton Brooks laid out the perfect kick, and Eric Gray let the ball bounce to him just as it traveled the needed 10 yards to be legally touched. It was the perfect play call, and it was perfectly executed.
And that was the twist in momentum that helped push forward the Vols’ comeback.
Tennessee trailed 22-16 at that point, and that recovery put them in prime position to try and grab the lead back after finally finding some rhythm on offense. And they were able to do just that, taking just 28 seconds to go 54 yards to score the game-winning touchdown with 3:51 to go.
Defense Hangs Tough
Indiana’s offense came into the TaxSlayer Bowl averaging over 300 passing yards and 443 total yards of offense per game. The Vols’ defense, for the most part, were able to slow them down and keep UT’s struggling offense in the game.
Tennessee intercepted a pass in the opening quarter, and they tallied four sacks and nine tackles for loss in the contest. Darrell Taylor finished his UT career strong with 1.5 sacks, two TFLs, and six total tackles. Matthew Butler got half a sack, and both Shawn Shamburger (who intercepted the pass) and Roman Harrison picked up sacks as well.
The Hoosiers averaged 6.08 yards per play in 12 games during the regular season. The Vols held them to 4.7 yards per play, and they held IU’s offense to just 4-of-13 on third down. Indiana had been one of the best third down offenses in the country heading into Thursday’s game, ranking 9th in the entire FBS in third down conversion percentage at 48.2 percent.
Aside from a few big pass plays and Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey finding some running room, the Vols’ defense kept Tennessee in the game and provided plenty of big plays themselves.
At times on Thursday, Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey seemed like Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in the Sooners’ win over the Vols in Neyland Stadium in 2015. Ramsey would scramble, evade defenders, and slip his way past Tennessee.
Ramsey didn’t wow through the air, completing 20 of his 34 passes for 227 yards and an interception. But he was able to extend plays and burn the Vols on the ground, picking up 54 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Six of Ramsey’s 17 runs were for first downs, and another one was for a touchdown.
Indiana started the game without starting running back Stevie Scott, and their running backs did little to nothing. Sampson James totaled 25 yards on 11 carries, and the rest of the team totaled -3 rushing yards on three carries.
It was Ramsey or bust when it came to running the ball for Indiana, and he was very effective at doing that.
Carry That Momentum…
With the win, Tennessee’s improbable turnaround this season was capped off with an appropriately dramatic and improbable victory.
Tennessee began the season 1-4 and somehow ended up with an 8-5 record. The Vols’ 23-22 win gives them six-straight victories, and UT ends the 2019 season winning seven of their last eight games.
There’s a chance the Vols sneak into the top 25 of the finalized polls at the end of this season, and that could mean UT starts out as a top 25 team in 2020. If so…
Get ready for an offseason of hype and excitement.