An “It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol” chant flooded down from the Neyland Stadium rafters like buckets of floating confetti.
Players sprinted to the student section, belted out a long-awaited verse of Rocky Top then bolted around the rest of the stadium – slapping hands and giving hugs to the still-standing, still-full crowd.
Not Ja’Wuan James.
The senior tackle stood in the tunnel with his helmet resting at his feet as the rest of his teammates paraded around in the crisp October air.
As each player trickled off the field, James stopped them and wrapped them in a brief hug.
Then Antonio Richardson trotted down the tunnel, skipping and shouting as he exited the playing surface.
Richardson stopped when he spotted James. He unbuckled his helmet and tossed it to the concrete floor in one swift motion.
The two embraced in a hug and swayed from side to side like a clock’s pendulum.
“We did it, we did it!” the two lineman shouted, half crying, half laughing.
The heart break was finally over. Finally.
Tennessee 23, No. 9 South Carolina 21 glowed on the scoreboard.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Richardson said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Everyone was speechless, even word-master Butch Jones.
The first-year head coach climbed the stage postgame. His lips pulsed as he tried not to flash an ear-to-ear grin.
“Well… umm,” Jones said through a voice that was catching in his throat. “Great day to be a Vol.”
There wasn’t much else to say.
A 19-game losing streak was shattered. A game that had all the ingredients to turn into one of Tennessee’s recently patented heart-breaking losses turned into a win for the history books.
Marlon Walls trudged off the field with tears rolling down his cheeks. Dontavis Sapp threw his hands to the sky and shouted. Michael Palardy collapsed on the turf.
The Vols covered 63 yards in nine plays to set up a game-winning, 20-yard field goal.
The celebration was on. It was well deserved.
"It's nice to get that one win we can talk about when we're 90," said defensive lineman Daniel Hood.
Added Rajion Neal: “This is something you dream of.
But make no mistake about it. Tennessee’s win wasn’t a result of hoping, wishing and praying.
Vols players will tell you the game was won last week.
“We worked hard all last week,” cornerback Justin Coleman said. “We won it then, during the bye. During practice.”
The hard work only continued during game-week practice.
As players exited Haslam Field Wednesday, they were handed a plastic orange inch.
Inches – it was this week’s theme.
“Some people may think it's corny,” Jones said.
Not the players. It wasn’t some gimmick to them.
There was one message in the huddle before the offense took the field – inches.
“You could hear the players yelling inches,” Jones said.
Inches make the champion, Jones and players will tell you.
But today, inches made Tennessee the winner over a tough Southeastern Conference foe.
“Everyone believed we were going to win that football game,” Jones said. “That is powerful.”
Michael Palardy dragged a tray through a salad bar during a team dinner on Friday night, plucking greens and veggies to plop on his plate.
Butch Jones grinned from the other side of the food.
“You gonna give me a game-winner tomorrow?” Jones asked.
“You know it, coach,” Palardy replied.
The question wasn’t anything new. Palardy’s been asked it countless times.
“He tells me everyday to visualize a game-winning kick because sooner or later it’s gonna come down to it,” Palardy said. “And sure enough, he was right.”
It’s no secret that Palardy has emerged this season as a remade kicker. He gives all the credit to Jones.
“The confidence he has instilled in me is unbearable,” Palardy said. “I appreciate everything he has done for me and I couldn’t do it without him.”
Palardy remembers the tough times. He remembers the harassment, the struggles.
But as the last second slipped off the scoreboard, he was at the bottom of a dog pile not drowning in floods of “boos.”
It was a nice change.
“It meant everything to me, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
As Palardy’s game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights, senior Marlon Walls sprang into a backflip.
The 272-pounder tucked, twirled and landed on his feet upright. It wasn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill reaction.
“I was just so excited,” Walls said. “I just had to let it all out, so I did a flip. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Most players jumped on Palardy or tackled other teammates.
Not Daniel McCullers, thankfully.
"I ain't gonna jump on anybody,” the 351-pounder said. “That just wouldn't be right."
The best incompletion of the season
With 54 seconds left in the half, Tennessee took over at its own 28-yard line looking to run out the rest of the clock and head into the break with a 17-7 lead.
Those plans were nearly derailed.
Justin Worley handed to Rajion Neal, who soon found himself engulfed in the arms of Jadeveon Clowney. Instead of taking the loss, Neal threw the ball at the feet of Worley for a baffling incompletion.
“I still don’t know what that play was,” Neal said. “No clue.”
The rematch: Clowney vs. Richardson
All eyes were on Antonio Richardson and Jadevon Clowney, two future NFL players meeting again after Clowney beat Richardson to force a game-ending fumble last season.
Richardson had nothing but respect for Clowney post-game and felt he performed well against the standout defensive end.
“He played a great game. He brought his A game today and I have all the respect for him,” Richardson said. “…In one-on-one pass protections, I felt like I was able to shut him down in those.”
Richardson was beat early by the potential first-overall draft pick, as witness early in the first quarter when Rajion Neal was blasted in the backfield.
“He made his plays every now and then,” Richardson said. “But y’all know me, I like to talk. I told him I’m going to keep bringing it all day.”
More than 250 “VFLs” trailed Tennessee as they sprinted through the “T” to take the field.
Richardson said post-game that he shook several ex-Vols’ hands and left them with a message.
“I was shaking all those guys hands and telling them, ‘You know what, we have your back. It’s time to get Tennessee to where we need to be,’” Richardson said. “I think we took a proper first step to get there and that’s what it’s really all about.”
Justin Worley on Butch Jones: “He’s brought his championship habits to Tennessee.”
See more from Jones in the video below provided by the university: