Conversely, learning to win is hard. After posting losing records in five of the past six seasons, Tennessee is acutely aware of this. Still, the Vols showed signs in Saturday’s 45-42 overtime defeat of South Carolina that they’re learning to win, which was easily the most encouraging development of the evening for Big Orange Nation.
Tennessee had a golden opportunity to beat Georgia in Athens on September 27. Instead of making plays to win the game, however, the Vols made plays to lose it. A fumbled handoff in the red zone cost them at least three points; another fumbled handoff in its end zone gave the Dawgs seven critical points and a 35-32 victory. Georgia didn’t win the game as much as Tennessee lost it.
The Vols seemed poised to beat Florida in Knoxville on October 4. Whereas 102,000 fans perfectly executed an orange and white checkerboard in the stands, 11 Vols couldn’t execute one play in the red zone. Tennessee again made plays to lose the game, allowing a Gator squad with no heart and no offense to stick around long enough to parlay one fourth-quarter drive into a 10-9 victory. Again, Tennessee lost the game more than the opponent won it.
It’s funny how we sports fans lend so much credence to “the breaks.” LSU’s Les Miles is known as “Lucky Les” because he routinely wins games he seems on the verge of losing. I used to think Miles was lucky, too, but I’ve changed my mind. Luck eventually runs out, yet Miles continues to win games at an impressive clip. He isn’t lucky; he’s resourceful, a trait he instills in his assistants and players.
I used to think former Tennessee basketball coach Buzz Peterson and former Vol football coach Derek Dooley were two of the unluckiest people on Earth. In hindsight, I realize they just lacked the resourcefulness to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
That’s why I think Vol fans should be giddy about Saturday night’s football game at Columbia. Tennessee probably didn’t deserve to win but it won anyway. Why? Because the Vols were resourceful, somehow making just enough key plays in clutch situations.
For 55 minutes Tennessee defenders might as well have stayed back in Knoxville. Brandon Wilds gashed the Vol run defense for 143 yards on just eight carries and Dylan Thompson shredded the pass defense for 20 completions in 32 attempts for 347 yards. Tennessee’s kickers were a virtual no-show, as well. Matt Darr blew an opportunity to back up Carolina with an awful pooch kick and later gave the Gamecocks great field position with an 18-yard shank. Placekicker Aaron Medley, meanwhile, missed field-goal tries of 43 and 45 yards.
The awful play of Big Orange defenders and kickers enabled South Carolina to build a seemingly safe 42-28 lead with just 4:52 remaining. That’s when something weird happened: Tennessee stopped making the kind of plays that lose games and started making the kind that win games.
A crisp 75-yard drive whittled the gap to 42-35 with 1:50 remaining. An onside kick failed but a clutch three-and-out by Tennessee’s defense got the ball back at the Vols’ 15-yard line. Still, with just 1:21 remaining and no timeouts left, Tennessee’s chances of mustering a tying touchdown appeared slim, especially given the earlier failures against Georgia and Florida.
This time was different, however. Completions of 31 and 18 yards to Pig Howard advanced the ball to Carolina’s 19-yard line. A 10-yard toss to Jalen Hurd got it to the Gamecock 9, then Joshua Dobbs bought enough time to find Jason Croom all alone at the goal line for a game-tying TD.
Medley atoned for the two regulation misfires by nailing a 32-yard field goal in overtime. The defense then atoned for four quarters of utter futility by recording back-to-back sacks that knocked Carolina out of field-goal range. Final score: Tennessee 45, South Carolina 42.
Gamecock head man Steve Spurrier needed just a dozen words to summarize the evening.
“We score a few points,” he said, “but we find a way to lose.”
Conversely, this youthful Tennessee squad suddenly found a way to win.
If the team can exhibit this knack three more times it will be 7-5 and bowl-bound in December. And maybe, just maybe, fans one day will look back on November 1, 2014 as the day the Tennessee Vols rediscovered how to win.