There is so much to talk about from Tennessee's overtime victory over Vanderbilt that it's almost a shame that the final play of the game will be the focal point for roughly 85% of the discussion across the Tennessee airwaves this week. But the past is written in stone, and we can only hope to add interpretation. There are a few elements to the final play that are certainties, and that we can all agree on, whether we are Tennessee fans, adversaries, or just neutral bystanders.
First, we can all admit that the review process failed. The official did blow a whistle and the play was technically unreviewable. On a play so obviously miscalled, there's a part of me that wants to be happy for officials that made the accurate call over the legal call, but it's also disturbing to see an official deny blowing a whistle in the face of a mistake. By the letter of the rule, Tennessee should have played their offensive series.
Stepping back from that point, imagine if you had not seen the play and were totally neutral to the game. Somebody hands you tape of the play with everything except audio and the officials' actions. You can't see what the call was, and you can only conclude what the call should be. Eric Gordon intercepted the ball, stayed on his feet, and ran it back for a game-winning touchdown. No Vanderbilt player had a chance to catch him, and none appeared to heed the whistle anyhow. No play can be taken independently of the official interpretation, but if you play this exercise with this play, the final call did match the actions of the players as they transpired. It was tainted first by a bad judgment call (which, to be fair, is an easy and honest mistake to make as Gordon's knee was very close to the ground) and tainted second by the bizarre and unauthorized review. In short, there is no good way to say that the game ended well. The officials screwed up twice and the end is forever colored. Fin.
If we can move beyond that play, however, there is so much to talk about from this game. Our other writers will have far more to say, so let me just outline a short and incomplete list of watercooler talking points and focus on one. (Also, read Vanderbilt's side of the game from our sister site, Anchor of Gold. Well worth it, and we know the heartache all too well.)
- Tyler Bray was exactly what you'd expect from a guy who had been out for several weeks. He had moments of greatness but had moments of ill-advised decisions. Expectations of a Cincy-level performance out of him were unrealistic, but he certainly did well enough to keep a victory in the works, even if he gave Vandy 14 points.
- Tauren Poole had one of the best rushing games of his entire career. It's not an eye-popping stat line (19 rushes, 107 yards, 1 TD, 0 fumbles, and 3 receptions for 21 yards), but he played a very consistent game. He was never a threat to fumble, made some very nice decisions in the backfield, and found several open running lanes.
- Da'Rick Rogers was in beast mode for 60 minutes. Compared to the previous games where he'd have occasional mental lapses (hello, dropped wide open pass!), he made several tough catches and runs throughout the game. The ESPN-highlight worthy TD catch in the fourth quarter wasn't just a spectacular play - it was what he had been doing all game long.
- The team played a complete game and got their act together after a dry spell in the third quarter. In previous weeks, that third quarter rut would have taken the team out of the game emotionally, but the fourth quarter in this game was different. Even falling behind, the team was focused enough to force overtime and to eventually win. Was this all due to having Bray back? Possibly, but whatever the cause, the effect was obvious.
There's so much more to talk about, but the class of 2008 deserves some mention. They were freshmen when Fulmer was fired. They were sophomores when Kiffin did what Kiffin does. By the time they were supposed to be upperclassmen leading the team, all they had known was turnover, frustration, an acidic fanbase, and a complete disappointment from their expectations. Better writers like Wes Rucker have stated their case very well, but for all they have been through, they have a victory on Senior Night that they can hold onto for the rest of their lives. And if Dooley does bring Tennessee back to prominence, that Senior Night game will be the turning point, when the team finally broke through their bad luck, their end-of-game shenanigans, and all of the disappointments to finally have a game go their way. If history is indeed etched in permanence and we're simply trying to add interpretation, perhaps there is room to remember these seniors in a positive light. For four years, and for 60+ minutes last night, they didn't quit on Tennessee.