An improbable victory

Tennessee has certainly had better teams. But I'm not sure I've seen a more resilient ball club wearing orange and white.

The Vols needed 110 defensive snaps and four overtimes to extend their winning streak to 23 over Kentucky and advance to the SEC Championship game for the fifth time in 11 years.

Saturday's 52-50 five-hour marathon win over Kentucky sends Tennessee to the Georgia Dome for a title match against a talented LSU team that lost its No. 1 ranking by losing in three overtimes to Arkansas in Baton Rouge on Friday.

``We're still alive,'' crowed Tennessee defensive tackle Dan Williams. ``We're going to Atlanta.''

After Tennessee lost 41-17 at Alabama and fell to 2-2 in SEC play, the Vols were given up for dead in the East Division. Somehow, they kept the pulse beating to run off four straight SEC wins to stake a claim to the East Division title.

It was improbable. It was unlikely. But it wasn't impossible.

And it wasn't without good fortune.

The Vols were lucky to beat South Carolina in overtime.

They were lucky to beat Vanderbilt after trailing 24-9 in the fourth quarter.

But they were more gutsy than lucky in beating Kentucky in Lexington.

``Several times we thought the game was over, that we weren't going to win,'' said Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who threw a school-record seven touchdown passes – three in overtime.

``When they kicked the field goal (that was blocked) we thought it was over. When I threw the interception (in overtime) we thought it was over. But you can't count out the will and heart of this team.''

Tennessee had several chances to put the game away but dropped the ball – literally. In the final eight minutes of regulation, Lucas Taylor dropped a fourth-and-3 pass at the Kentucky 37, Arian Foster dropped a third-and-7 pass, Austin Rogers dropped a third-and-6 pass and defensive backs Eric Berry and Brent Vinson dropped interceptions that would have stopped Kentucky's final drive and sealed the deal.

But that would have been too easy for these Cardiac Kids.

No, they needed more dramatics. They needed not one, not two, not three overtimes. They needed four overtimes to get it done.

They needed another great play by defensive end Antonio Reynolds to secure the win. Reynolds, a rather non-descript defensive end for four years who had two sacks this season, had the game of his career. He sacked Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson on a two-point try in the fourth overtime to set off a wild Tennessee celebration.

Reynolds had two of UT's season-high six sacks. He also had an interception on a two-point try and he recovered a blocked field-goal attempt that almost resulted in a game-winning runback in the second overtime.

Kentucky sophomore Lones Seiber, who kicked at Knoxville's Central High School and set a Kentucky kick-scoring record this season, had a 34-yard attempt that would have won the game if not for Dan Williams' incredible block.

``Coach (Dan) Brooks called desperation block,'' Williams said. ``He said the kicker was kicking the ball low all game. I just fired off and jumped as high as I could and it hit me in the face mask.''

It was one of the few big defensive plays in a game filled with offense.

Tennessee had 520 yards on 82 snaps with Ainge piling up 397 yards on 28 of 45 attempts. Foster had nine catches for 98 yards to go with his 118 rushing yards, pushing him over 1,100 yards for the season.

Kentucky had 564 yards on an astonishing 110 plays. Andre Woodson was 39 of 62 for 430 yards – 352 in the second half and overtime. Four Wildcat receivers had at least 80 receiving yards.

The quarterbacks combined to complete 67 of 107 passes for 827 yards and 13 touchdowns. The teams combined for 1,084 yards and 61 first downs.

And Tennessee found a way to win, despite being outscored 24-7 in the second half, dropping passes in the fourth quarter and surrendering a 19-play, 90-yard field-goal drive in the final minutes while in a prevent defense that played soft on the corners and rushed three at times.

``Unbelievable,'' said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, now 7-1 in overtimes. ``Our kids don't have any quit in them. If we'd lost, I don't know what I'd said to them except, `Way to go.'

``I don't know how anybody couldn't be proud of this football team.''

In overtime alone, UT needed a touchdown catch from Quintin Hancock from 40 yards out after Foster got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It needed a miraculous catch from Gerald Jones, his first touchdown reception of the season. It needed a blocked field goal after Ainge threw an interception. And it needed a sack on a two-point conversion try.

``You never give up,'' said a proud Fulmer. ``You never say die until the last tick goes off the clock. It's a great reflection of how we coach and their will – they've got a great will about them.''

Fulmer said his 7-1 overtime record is ``not a fluke.'' He also said he didn't take personal satisfaction in winning the East Division.

``We've all done it together,'' Fulmer said. ``We've worked hard to get here.

``If you want to say there is some validation to it, it'd be easy to have sour grapes. But we have passionate fans that want us to do well and we work hard to do well.

``You'd like to tell all the naysayers, `I told you so,' but I'm not going to do that.''

You just did, coach. You just did.


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