Eric Gordon clinched that title by landing a dramatic knockout punch, returning an interception 90 yards for a touchdown to give the Big Orange a bizarre 27-21 overtime defeat of Vanderbilt Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. Originally ruled down at the 11-yard because his knee apparently touched the turf, Gordon got credit for the TD when a replay review showed his return was legitimate.
Tennessee is still a featherweight, as its 5-6 overall record and 1-6 SEC record clearly attest. And beating Vanderbilt, now 5-6 and 2-6, hardly qualifies as a major accomplishment. Still, the Vols were thrilled that a replay review finally went their way after losing to LSU and North Carolina on replay-booth reversals last season. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was so happy that he shouted “We finally got a break!” as he left the coaches' booth at game's end.
Head coach Derek Dooley was pretty pleased, too.
“I don't know I've ever been prouder of a football team in all my years,” he said. “The adversity these guys have gone through, and what happened last week (49-7 loss at Arkansas) … I know nobody was expecting us to come out and do much. But we went out there and just gritted out a win, and that was fun to watch....
“I think the luck has turned at Tennessee. I don't care how this happened. We got one.”
The Vols' luck turned, all right. Vanderbilt missed two field goals that could've won the game in regulation and further contributed to its own demise with four turnovers.
The first turnover was a fumble by quarterback Jordan Rodgers that Tennessee parlayed into a three-play, 21-yard TD drive and a 7-0 lead.
Commodore kicker Ryan Fowler missed field goal tries of 44 and 34 yards, then Vandy shot itself in the foot yet again when a 72-yard completion from Rodgers to Chris Boyd was nullified by a clipping penalty.
Rodgers and Boyd hooked up again on the fifth play of the fourth quarter, however, and this connection produced a 20-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead. It appeared that score might stand up when Michael Palardy's 22-yard field goal attempt was blocked with 6:32 left but Vandy's Sean Richardson was flagged for running into the kicker. Does this stuff ever happen to anyone other than Vandy?
With the ball advanced from the 5-yard line to the 2, Dooley decided to forgo the field goal and try to score the tying touchdown. A spectacular one-handed catch by Da'Rick Rogers made that decision look very good, getting the Vols even at 21-21 with 6:27 remaining.
Vanderbilt appeared to be driving for the game-winning score when Rodgers threw his second interception of the game – this one being picked off by Prentiss Waggner at the Vol 38-yard line.
Rodgers then threw his third interception of the game on the fourth play of overtime, and this mistake proved fatal. Gordon stepped in front of Wesley Tate on a quick hitch and zoomed 90 yards as a convoy of blockers accompanied him and thousands of Vol fans cheered him.
“It actually was the same play I broke up a little earlier,” Gordon said, clearly stunned that Vandy went back to the same call. “They did the same route, and I was like, 'This can't be real right now.' I caught that thing and I was ready to go.”
He went, all right, scoring a touchdown that just might prove to be a turning point in Derek Dooley's Tennessee tenure.
Tyler Bray, returning from a five-game layoff due to a broken thumb, completed 16 of 33 passes for 189 yards with two passes intercepted by Vandy's Archibald Barnes. Barnes returned the first pick to the Vol 6-yard line to set up a second-quarter Commodore TD and returned the other 100 yards for a third-quarter score.
On the plus side, Bray also threw touchdown passes of 17 and 2 yards to Da'Rick Rogers.
"Tyler Bray is an impact player, a playmaker, and he makes a lot of things look a lot easier than they are," Rogers said after catching 10 balls for 116 yards and cracking the 1,000-yard mark for the season. "With that help, it makes it easier to score touchdowns and make plays."
The Vols now have beaten Vanderbilt 28 times in the last 29 meetings. And, as happened in many of those previous meetings, the Commodores did more to lose the game than the Vols did to win the game. Still, a win is a win, and the Big Orange needed this win desperately.
Tennessee remains a long way from battling the heavyweights but at least it proved it's the best featherweight in the state.