Tennessee was left for dead early in the fourth quarter.
Jarrett Guarantano had just completed a pass on 3rd-and-8 to Tim Jordan for a 1-yard loss that resulted in a three-and-out for the Vols’ offense. Tennessee was punting the football back to Indiana down 22-9 with just under nine minutes remaining in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Tennessee’s defense was playing well, however, and they proceeded to force Indiana into a three-and-out of its own. With the help of Eric Gray, Guarantano helped lead the Vols down the field before handing the football off to Quavaris Crouch for a 1-yard rushing touchdown to cut the Hoosiers’ lead to 22-16 with 4:21 remaining.
Now needing a defensive stop in order to get the ball back in the hands of their offense, Jeremy Pruitt elected to run an onside kick rather than kick it deep. The gamble paid off, as Paxton Brooks executed the kick beautifully and Eric Gray came up with the Vols’ first recovered onside kick since 2011.
“It was something that we felt was there when we were breaking them down (on film), and as the game went, we felt like it was there,” Pruitt said following the game. “We’ve probably repped it 500 or 600 times over the last six months.
“Had confidence in our players, so just felt like we needed to do it there, and Paxton laid down a great kick. Eric (Gray) — we got three guys that’s going to block the three returners, and we got two guys getting the ball. Eric timed it right, and it was a great kick. Wasn’t much they could do based off how they were aligned.”
Gray recovered the kick right as it crossed the 10-yard mark to make it legal for the kicking team to recover it. If the freshman had extended his arms out to grab the ball, it might’ve been too soon.
Instead, he let the ball come to him.
“That’s a big testament to Paxton (Brooks),” Gray said. “We’ve practiced it over and over a thousand times. We just never ran it. We saw that look on film all week. We saw that look when they backed their guys up and the hole was there.
“I’m just glad that I caught it when it was 10 yards.”
Following the onside kick, Guarantano once again led the Vols down the field for the game-winning score. This time, it only took three plays. Guarantano found Josh Palmer for a 23-yard gain, and following a 15-yard facemask penalty against the Hoosiers, Gray ran the ball in from 16 yards out to give Tennessee a 23-22 lead with 3:51 remaining in the game.
In a matter of 28 seconds, the Vols went from trailing by 13 to up by one. And the onside kick was a big reason why.
In 2018, Pruitt acquired a reputation for not being afraid to leave it all out on the field. Multiple times throughout his rookie campaign as head coach, Pruitt called for an onside kick, though it never worked out in the Vols’ favor.
Pruitt hadn’t called for an onside kick all season long until the bowl game match-up with the Hoosiers, but he picked the perfect time to do so.
“I’m kind of a go-for-it guy,” Pruitt said. “I look at myself a little bit as a long shot. It hadn’t been that long ago I was coaching high school ball, lining off the field, washing the uniforms and things like that, and now I’m the head coach at the University of Tennessee.
“If it looks like it’s there, you might as well take it is the way I look at it. That’s kind of the way we coach, you know. Rather get them before they get us.”