After only half a season, the Vols had already stumbled out of the gate, lucked into a lead in the SEC East, and then squandered that lead in embarrassing fashion in Tuscaloosa. They’d lost by a combined score of 100-37 to their two biggest rivals, and Steve Spurrier -- their third biggest rival when he's wearing South Carolina colors – was coming to town.
The mood on Rocky Top was . . . let’s call it sour mash. Knoxville News Sentinel cartoonist Dan Proctor published a cartoon on game day depicting the Grim Reaper at coach Fulmer's door with Spurrier ringing the doorbell. Meanwhile, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit opined on a national broadcast that Tennessee's players were more concerned about the NFL than playing for the Vols.
That was all bad enough, but making matters worse, this wasn’t your typical South Carolina team despite the fact that they had dancin’ Blake Mitchell under center. The Gamecocks had been 6th in the BCS rankings before losing to Vanderbilt the prior week, and their only other loss was to LSU. They’d already beaten Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Georgia. The teams seemed pretty evenly matched, too, with Tennessee having statistical advantages in the rushing game, both offense and defense. As you might imagine, Steve Spurrier had the advantage in the passing game when his offense was on the field, and as you might not imagine, he had the advantage in passing defense, as well, although Tennessee’s offensive line did lead the nation in fewest sacks allowed.
But with the Alabama hangover still raging, Vol fans could manage only a couple of desperate pleas: don’t abandon the running game (again), and please, please, please defend the pass. Most of all, though, we just wanted a win, however we might get it.
With ESPN not airing the Tennessee-Steve Spurrier game until late in the evening, Vol fans had a chance to keep an eye on the race for the SEC East. The morning began with perfect autumn weather and a wistful hope for something Sunday Morning Quarterback dubbed Scenario Four: where the Vols not only beat the Gamecocks, but Georgia beat Florida as well.
That would be just lovely, thank you, but in the early game, an even better scenario began to develop. Call it Scenario 4A. By 3:30, Sylvester Croom’s Bulldogs pulled the upset and beat Kentucky, giving the 'Cats three SEC losses. By 6:30, Georgia had ended its game against Florida ahead in both personal fouls and points, putting Tennessee one game ahead of the Gators. Georgia and Tennessee both had two SEC losses, but the Vols had the tiebreaker.
By 8:00 that evening, Tennessee was behind the wheel, once again gunning straight for Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game. They invited 108,000 fans to pile in the bus, and they all went joyriding.
For a half. Until they almost drove off a cliff.
Crazy. Not only did David Cutcliffe dominate the Gamecocks' defense for the first 30 minutes, but John Chavis bested Spurrier as well, shutting him out during the first half and extending the longest touchdown drought in Spurrier's history to eight quarters. Yes, the pre-intermission saga can be properly characterized as opportunistic, with two touchdowns resulting from excellent field position due to Steve Spurrier turnovers. But it’s funny how our defense seems to get more opportunistic when Eric Berry’s on the field:
I don’t know who said what at halftime, but Bubba Hyde morphed back into Barney Jekyl after the break. Ainge went positively frigid. Tennessee couldn’t (or didn’t try to (argh!)) run the ball. The offense had a grand total of 62 glorious yards in the second half.
And the defense. Oy. The Gamecocks got three unanswered second-half touchdowns before the fates changed, and when I say the fates changed, I don’t mean that we got better, but that the wheels finally fell off for South Carolina, too. The drama ratcheted up a notch when, with 11:00 minutes to go and the game inconceivably tied, the Tennessee offense went three-and-out. Then, with 10:34 remaining, the Gamecocks drove 65 yards . . . and fumbled in the red zone:
Um, wow. Woo for the initial call and the consequent favorable burden of proof.
Tennessee then seized the opportunity just graciously dropped in their lap by . . . going nowhere and throwing an interception to Captain Munnerlyn. Sheesh.
Dancin’ Blake Mitchell then made the most of his opportunity by . . . going nowhere and throwing an interception to Ryan Karl. Yay.
4:05 remained. Tennessee went nowhere and punted.
And then, disaster. Steve Spurrier finally put together a time-chewing drive against our exhausted defense that ended with Ryan Succop kicking the go-ahead field goal with only 1:24 left in the game.
Game over, man. They'd scored 24 unanswered points. We couldn't stop them, and our offense couldn't get anything going in 29 minutes of the second half, so there was no reason to think that we'd be able to do anything with the last 71 seconds.
But oh, looky here:
Coker put a little fuel in the tank with that return and got us to mid-field, but we still had to push the heap of junk up a hill just to get into game-tying field goal range. Two Ainge completions later and it was third and one at the 44 yard line. And then, The Incontinence of a Nation:
A novel approach to a first down, but I’ll take it. On first and ten at the 26, Ainge threw a nine-yard pass to Austin Rogers, taking us to the 17. We were already in field goal range, but with time winding down, the goal now was to get the ball as close to the uprights and the middle of the field as possible to maximize the odds that Daniel Lincoln’s field goal attempt would tie the game. Oh, and to hold on to the ball, let’s not forget that. Encore, anyone?
Dude had not been sacked but once all year, and he picked right then to not only go backwards nine yards but to nearly fumble the thing away in the process? Yeeeowzamighty.
So here it was. Down by three with eight seconds remaining and the lead in the East on the line. Daniel Lincoln set up for a 43-yard field goal attempt:
Yeehaw for penalties! To be fair, Lincoln later said that he heard the whistle before the first kick and decided to just go through the motions half-heartedly, but still.
In overtime, Tennessee got the ball first, and Lincoln hit another field goal. The Gamecocks missed theirs, and just like that we were sitting wide-eyed, slack-jawed in the driver’s seat, white knuckles digging into the steering wheel as dust and debris settled all around us. Near disaster, but we'd survived.
It wasn’t pretty. Steve Spurrier had nearly twice as many first downs as did the Vols, 31-16 to be exact. They had 20 first downs just passing the ball, and they had more passing yards than we had total. Yes, we had experienced life on the margins, but as that excellent series from SMQ always reminds us, a win is a win is a win.
No game in the 2007 season made it more clear than this one that this would be the Season of the Second Wind. Witnesseth:
- We lost to Cal in the first game of the season, but as tough as the SEC is, a team’s place in the national picture is decided more by how you finish in the conference than by how you play against The Outsiders.
- We lost to Florida in our third game of the season and our first game in conference . . . but Florida then lost twice, to Auburn and LSU, on consecutive weeks. In the meantime, we beat Georgia and took a tiebreaker advantage over them.
- We lost a substantial first-half lead to Steve Spurrier, and then missed a game-tying field goal late but hit it after our own team committed a penalty, sending us to an improbable overtime and an even more improbable win.
Yes, we’d re-taken the wheel, and we’d flirted with, but avoided the cliff. Luckily, there was a service station ahead as we had a breather (we hoped) against Louisiana-Lafayette before our last true test (we hoped) of the regular season against Darren McFadden and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Up next, the Ragin’ Cajuns.