Alton Howard trudged up the Gate 21 tunnel, dragging his feet as if cinderblocks were tied to his shoes.
He paused when he reached the top.
Fans were waiting, lined up three rows deep behind barriers in hopes to score an autograph or high-five from their favorite player. Howard dipped back inside the comfort of the tunnel before facing the crowd. He covered his face with both hands. He needed to collect himself.
Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni emerged from the tunnel, seeing his disgruntled player. He patted Howard on the back and nodded as if to say, “You’re alright.”
Howard nodded back, took a deep breath and exited the tunnel to cheers and roars from the orange-clad crowd.
The slightest grin crawled onto Howard’s face. The fans heeded Butch Jones' words without even hearing them.
“Our fans should be proud of our football team,” Jones said through a raspy voice post game. “I’m proud to be their head football coach. They know I love ‘em.”
Howard, like the rest of his teammates, was hurting.
It’s expected. When you care about the cause, your teammates and your coaches that much, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to burn. Bad.
It’s hard to look at the pain following a loss so heart breaking and find the positives. But the pain in itself is a part of Jones’ “brick-by-brick” mentality. He’s building a culture. He’s building a family.
“This team has become closer than any team I’ve ever been part of,” Tennessee’s head coach said.
It’s easy for Howard to hang his head. And it’s understandable.
He stretched for the front, right pylon in overtime, trying to spark an unlikely upset. But the ball slipped from his hand before it crossed the end zone, turning a potential game-winning score into a death-sentencing touchback.
“He was just trying to make a play,” Jones said. “Alton was trying to give us a spark.”
While Howard’s fumble won’t soon be forgotten, the reality is the Vols may not have had a chance to win the game in overtime without the do-it-all player’s efforts.
“I love Alton. He's trying to make a play and unfortunately it slipped out his hands,” Jones said. “But we wouldn't be in a situation to win the game without Alton Howard's effort today."
Howard torched Georgia for 166 all-purpose yards, racking up 46 rushing yards and tacking on 70 more via receptions. He was the Vols’ leading receiver and second-leading rusher on Saturday.
Jones said post game that this team has a saying – “I have your back.” Everyone had Howard’s.
"I went up and talked to him in the locker room, and told him it's something you can't control sometimes. The ball slipped out of his hand, but I told him to not get down on himself and keep fighting,” Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “I told him I needed him for the rest of the season, you know we have another big game coming up in two weeks. We just have to go back and do it, and I told him to keep playing. He played a great game, made plays that we needed."
Thank you, fans
Butch Jones didn’t open his press conference by talking about how proud he was of his team. Nor did he talk about the costly late penalties, or how he thought his embattled quarterback played.
No. He opened by thanking the fans.
Neyland Stadium was a weapon again.
"Well first of all, I want to thank our great fan base. Electric atmosphere, they definitely created a home field advantage,” Jones said. “That's why they're the best in the country. I want to thank our student body. Over 12,000 students came out.”
But Jones isn’t satisfied by the ruckus environment. He doesn’t want it to be a one-time deal. He challenged Vol Nation.
“I think what we learned is we need that environment. We're going to need that,” Jones said. “I need to challenge everyone. I need you to come to the South Carolina game. We're on (fall break) and our team needs it."
Worley wows Jones, teammates
Butch Jones dubbed Justin Worley’s one-touchdown effort against Georgia as the best game of his career.
"I thought Justin probably played his best game,” Jones said. “He was poised. He made the plays.”
The stat sheet would agree with Jones.
Worley marginally outshined Aaron Murray on a night where Georgia’s gunslinger became the Southeastern Conference's all-time leader in career yards passing.
Worley finished 17-of-31 for 215 yards. Murray was 19-of-35 for 196 yards.
But most importantly, Worley didn’t turn the ball over. The junior entered the game having thrown an interception in each of his last five quarters. He didn’t throw one Saturday.
"I thought he took some steps moving forward. We didn't turn the ball over. Anytime you don't turn the football over, you're going to give yourself an opportunity to win,” Jones said. “Justin had a great week of preparation. I have to give him credit. How old is he? Twenty-one? How many 21-year-olds could go through the last couple weeks he's gone through? He's a competitor and he's worked exceptionally hard, and I thought he took some steps moving forward today. I was extremely proud of him."
But Jones wasn’t the only one high on his quarterback post game.
Worley may not have earned the respect of fans – and maybe he doesn’t deserve to – but that’s not the case in the Tennessee locker room.”
"I respect Worley as a player, and as a man, and I feel like Worley has worked very hard week after week to try to make the reads, to try to make the right decisions as a quarterback for this Tennessee offense,” defensive end Corey Miller said. “And I feel like it showed today that he's definitely put in the work. He played a great game today."
There was a collaborative breath held in Neyland Stadium time and time again Saturday.
Tennessee punched in a score to take a 31-24 lead with 1:54 remaining in the fourth quarter. The drive lasted 6 minutes, 42 seconds, ate through 13 plays and covered 80 yards – not to mention overcoming two fourth-down conversions.
The Vols first converted on a fourth-and-1 from their own 30 on a Rajion Neal misdirection pitch. Then again on a fourth-and-1 from the Georgia 35 on a play action pass to tight end A.J. Branisel.
Butch Jones offered a glimpse into what went into his fourth-down decision-making. It wasn’t a “nothing-to-lose” mentality. Far from it.
"We have the best offensive line in the SEC. That's what we believe, so we're going to do it. These are plays that the coaching staff did a great job and the players executed it,” Jones said. “When you execute in practice, you have confidence to call it in the game. We executed them in practice and there was never any doubt that we were going to do that."
While the fourth down attempts weren’t an effort to energize the crowd or team, the gutsy play calling certainly had that affect as well.
"I was really excited. Everybody got behind the offense. I don't think you could see one person sitting down on the bench; we were behind them,” Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “We were going to will our way to that first down. Our offense came out and executed well. I was proud of the way the entire offense played today.”
To Johnson, Jones’ choice to leave the offense on the field when the game got tight proved a point – his head coach has confidence in this team.”
“I was really excited to see coach Jones call those plays on fourth down, showing that he had the courage to call it, he was behind us, and he knew we could make it," Johnson said.
Butch Jones, per university
Rajion Neal, per university
Corey Miller and Brian Randolph, per university
Justin Worley, per university