Stephen King's new novel 11/22/63 is about a man who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. Early in the story the process of time travel is explained to the protagonist by the man who first discovered it, who had gone back earlier in an attempt to save a girl from being paralyzed in a hunting accident. He shares the following about his journey:
"What I'm telling you, Jake, is that you can change the past, but it's not as easy as you might think. That morning I felt like a man trying to fight his way out of a nylon stocking. It would give a little, then snap back just as tight as before. Finally, though, I managed to rip it open."
"Why would it be hard? Because the past doesn't want to be changed?"
"Something doesn't want it to be changed, I'm pretty sure of that. But it can be. If you take the resistance into account, it can be."
Last night was a classic "something has to give" game: Tennessee's inability to face adversity vs. Vanderbilt's identity. Tyler Bray gave the Vols the boost we thought they'd get, which was more about psyche than X's and O's not just early but often. His work in the first half helped the Vols to a 14-7 lead. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt missed two field goals and turned the ball over twice in the first half. Undefeated with a halftime lead under Derek Dooley, Bray and the Vols marched to the doorstep once more in the third quarter, three yards away from what we were all sure would be the nail in the coffin.
And then in one play the narrative of the game changed, and we went from just another Tennessee-Vanderbilt game to an instant classic that could become one of the most meaningful Tennessee performances against Vanderbilt in decades.
Tyler Bray's 97 yard pick six with 5:29 left in the third quarter merely tied the score, but it changed everything. Suddenly Vanderbilt was doing decidedly un-Vanderbilt things, and Tennessee was living out the same nightmare we've watched in the second half for the better part of two seasons. Vandy fans who wanted to believe now had reason. Tennessee fans who wanted to doubt, likewise.
Vanderbilt then dominated field position for the next several possessions, eventually cashing in on a touchdown with 12:21 to play. Their storybook ending and our greatest failure were clearly in sight.
But here again Bray made a difference. With him on the field, despite his injured thumb and subsequent shaky accuracy, and despite the fact that his two interceptions essentially gave Vanderbilt 14 of their 21 points, Bray's presence gave us the chance to believe. And the offense didn't waste any time: the drive was 13 plays 80 yards, but Tennessee didn't face a third down until they got to the Vanderbilt 11 yard line. And after Bray hit Mychal Rivera for 11 and Da'Rick Rogers for 14, the run game took over (thought you'd never hear it again, eh?). Tauren Poole for 19 of his 107. Raijon Neal for 6 of his 29. Poole again for a first down, and the Vols were in business.
With the Vols in position, the story flipped again. Stopped on third and goal, Derek Dooley elected to take three points with less than seven minutes to play. Then Vanderbilt found a creative way to be Vanderbilt: block the field goal with one guy (which may or may not have been our own center, in fact), but run into the kicker with another. I've never seen that before on any level of football. (And by the way, the refs are going to get killed overall in this game, but that was a spectacular job by that official to get that call right live, confirmed by the replay).
With another opportunity and half the distance closer, Dooley elected to go for the end zone, and Bray went to his favorite target. As Hooper mentioned in his postgame, the play Da'Rick made was just one part of his sensational night: 10 catches for 116 yards and two tough touchdowns, including the spectacular one-handed grab to cap this drive and tie the score on fourth down. I've said it before and it played out again tonight: without Justin Hunter, Bray favors Rogers like crazy...but why wouldn't you? That information wasn't enough for Vanderbilt to stop him, and now Rogers has 65 catches, 1,002 yards, and nine touchdowns on the season. He's four receptions ahead of Jarius Wright for the SEC lead, dead even with him in yardage, and one back in touchdowns. What's more, he's now within range of the UT single season records for receptions (76 by Marcus Nash in 1997) and, if he's really impressive, yardage (1,298 by Robert Meachem in 2006) and touchdowns (13 by Nash in 1997). Obviously the Vols have to get bowl eligible for him to get there, but we could be witnessing the most impressive single season by a Tennessee wide receiver...with three different quarterbacks throwing him the ball.
As for Bray, that fourth quarter drive goes in the books with the one at the end of the Music City Bowl last year. We still haven't seen Bray get the best of a great defense, but he's proven he can take a team down the field and score when we have to have it.
From there, we got to overtime via Prentiss Waggner, who continues to make huge plays. But Waggner went down in overtime with an apparent shoulder injury, joining Brian Randolph, who rang his own bell in the first quarter, on the sideline. The secondary on the field on the game's final play: Marsalis Teague, Izauea Lanier, Eric Gordon, Rod Wilks, Byron Moore. Because you had that penciled in back in August.
Here's the thing: this game could've ended a number of ways. A Vanderbilt win would've obviously been catastrophic, especially the way the game played out. Or maybe Tyler Bray doesn't throw that pick six and we score instead, and we cruise to a nice ten point win.
But instead, we got the best possible outcome.
First, we got "The Play". The one we've been waiting for all season, the one where Neyland Stadium releases all its frustration in exchange for pure jubilation. The one we can point to and say, "See, the game was on the line, and WE made the play." Eric Gordon's walk-off pick-six will live in Tennessee Football history, but was also so huge for this team to prove they can do it at the end of a game. It was the biggest play since Dan Williams blocked an overtime field goal in Lexington four years ago, which is also the last time I saw a more exciting Tennessee victory.
But then, as a bonus, we got to slay the demons of LSU and North Carolina.
Again, Hooper covered the sequence of events with the referees and the review really well. Inside the stadium while the play was being reviewed, I kept saying how we needed to maintain our composure if it went against us. Because we were so used to coming out on the wrong end of these things, I was worried we might give the ball right back or shank another field goal, then lose. Could you imagine?
See, if you've been following this team, you probably can. But finally...finally...we didn't have to. Finally the joy of a last play victory was real. And finally, things went Tennessee's way.
"You know what? The black cloud over Knoxville blew away, and we got a little sunshine."
You could chalk this up to Vanderbilt being Vanderbilt, and it certainly had all the elements: two missed field goals, running into the kicker, a chop block that negated a long scoring opportunity, and four turnovers - one probably five yards away from trying the game winning field goal, the other a sudden death overtime pick six.
But Tennessee did their part last night as well. It started with Bray and Rogers, but included a defense that was absolutely lights out. Vandy was held to just 283 yards and got two-thirds of their points off turnovers. The Vols rattled Jordan Rodgers all night, hit him repeatedly, and created the game's biggest plays to win it. And at the heart of it: the seniors. Tauren Poole ran for over 100 yards. Austin Johnson grabbed another interception. And Malik Jackson lived in Vanderbilt's backfield.
You can't arrive by beating Vanderbilt; this isn't the win that's supposed to make us all believe in Derek Dooley. The end result is still miles and miles ahead. But a win like this - the way it happened - against what I'm prepared to call a good Vanderbilt team can make such a difference for this team and this program. The Vols stared down a mountain of adversity and won - not because they were lucky, but because they made the plays they had to have on both sides of the ball. With the game on the line, Tennessee played for and made the breaks, and scored. And when familiar end of game shenanigans appeared ready to return, this time the Vols came out on top.
You can change the past. It's not easy, and there will be resistance, but it can be done. Saturday night, Tennessee claimed a huge victory for the momentum of the program, trading learned helplessness for right action. Right action can lead to right thinking, as the orange dog will attest to. And maybe, just maybe, we can start moving forward again.
The story now goes to Lexington, then hopefully to bowl season. But for the story of the program overall, this was a huge win - not because it was Vanderbilt, but because of the way it happened. The black clouds rolled away, and the Vols got exactly what they needed to bring better days to Rocky Top.