If at first you don't succeed, try something completely different.
That's what Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley must have been thinking Saturday night with 6 minutes, 27 seconds left on the clock, his Volunteers -- home dogs for the first time ever against Vanderbilt -- trailing the Commodores 21-14 and all the momentum cloaked in black-and-gold.
Banking on getting the football at least one more time, the second-year coach made what I believe was the wrong decision, sending kicker Michael Palardy out for a chip-shot field goal that would have, at best, trimmed the lead to four and put VU in a position to whittle the game away. It was an uncharacteristically conservative decision for a coach who has lived but mostly died by his aggression.
For once, the football gods shined on the Vols -- the first of four times that would occur down the stretch to finally give UT an SEC win in dramatic fashion, 27-21 over "rival" Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin in overtime.
As Palardy unleashed a Daniel Lincoln Special -- a low line-drive that looked about crotch-high and would eventually get blocked at the line of scrimmage -- the VU gunner crashed into his ankle. Palardy failed, but fell.
Vanderbilt celebrates. Tennessee frustrates.
But, in the midst of it all, a yellow handkerchief was strewn at the line of scrimmage. After little deliberation, the official made the correct call that, while the field goal was blocked, it wasn't touched by the same player who crashed into Palardy, thus resulting in a running-into-the-kicker penalty. Had the same player who ran into Palardy blocked the kick, there would have been no infraction. But in this case, the Vols got a dream do-over.
The penalty was a blessing, but it didn't result in a fresh set of downs as a roughing call would have. Instead, the ball moved from the 5 yard line to the 2 and the Vols still faced a gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing fourth-and-goal. Twice before on the night, they'd been inside VU's 20 with polar results. The first time, Bray threw a 50/50 ball to Da'Rick Rogers' outside shoulder for a 17-yard touchdown at the pylon. The next, UT's sophomore quarterback tried to fit a ball into double coverage, ignored the linebacker and paid with a 100-yard pick six that resulted in a 14-point swing and gave Vanderbilt a mental boost.
Here's the game's most pivotal moment: What do you do?
From my seat, the answer was simple: If you've spent the entire season putting games on the shoulders of your young, inexperienced, not-ready-for-primetime players by going for it on fourth downs and yanking a senior to pull the redshirt of a true freshman quarterback who you'd never seen before simply because he was Anybody But Matt Simms, then why not do it now?
Why not put the fate of your team in the hands of your star quarterback who'd just returned from his injury? Why not throw the football to the guy who everybody in the stadium knew was going to get it every game ever since Justin Hunter went down in Week 3, the same guy who -- no matter who was throwing him the football -- has put up good enough numbers to lead the SEC in catches and yards?
After putting so many long-shot games in your players' hands, why not put one on them that could actually lead to a win?
And the do-over not only may have changed our season but possibly -- hyperbole coming here -- the black cloud over Dooley's coaching regime at UT.
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 2, Bray dropped back and threw a ball to Rogers that could only be caught by Rogers. From the release [which seemingly played out in slow motion], the pass looked wide-left, too far out-of-bounds to be hauled in, too wide of his favorite target, too good to be true that we could actually make a play with the game on the line. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was exactly where it needed to be; the only place it could be. The star athlete from Calhoun, Ga., snagged the ball one-handed, pulled it in and got both feet in the end zone. In a season where we've rarely looked like an SEC team, that was an NFL catch.
Extra point good. Game tied. Cue heroics.
Listen: There will be several people point out how Prentiss Waggner's perfectly-timed, route-jumping interception negated any chance for VU to kick an end-of-regulation field goal to beat Tennessee, and rightfully so. It was a great, crucial play.
Many others will always remember the game's signature, sealing play -- Eric Gordon's hiccup-quick break on Jordan Rodgers' overtime pass, ensuing interception and 93-yard touchdown return, phantom-whistle-be-damned. And rightfully so. That was the game-ending memory-maker.
But those plays don't happen if Dooley doesn't go for broke on fourth-and-goal from the 2. They don't happen if he doesn't put the game in the hands of his players, who made the play when they had to. After all, with 6:27 left on the clock and a defense that at times this season has struggled to get off the field on third down, there is no guarantee the Vols would have gotten another shot. Even if they did, how long would they have had? Long enough for Bray -- playing with nine fingers -- to lead them downfield?
Dooley made the correct call, even if it took him two tries to get it right. I'm OK with that; he still gets credit. If you're going to get criticized for making bad coaching decisions, you deserve praise for the good ones -- especially the ones that lead to wins. And we'll take any of those we can get right now.
The decision to go for the touchdown in that position paved the way for yet another win over Vanderbilt, but it was much more than that. It opened the door to beating Kentucky and making it to another bowl game. And it kept alive the hope that, even through an awful, forgettable season, there's still the possibility to head into 2012 a step better than we were last year, bridging the gulf in this rebuilding process to hopefully better days ahead. That play was that humongous -- if the Vols capitalize on it.
Scoring that touchdown can lead to beating Kentucky. It can lead to playing in a bowl game. It can lead to winning a bowl game. And it can lead to getting UT to next season where health, a better schedule and another quality recruiting class getting into school can move us forward.
It was a second chance for Dooley to make the right call, and when he did, it gave our program a second chance at this season. Now, let's take advantage.