On September 9th, 2005, Dion Byrum picked off Tyler Palko and ran untouched for 85 yards into the end zone. It was only Ohio's second touchdown of the game, and both came from Byrum interception returns. But it was in overtime, and it ended the game, giving Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats a 16-10 victory over the defending Big East champion Pittsburgh Panthers.
In the next six years, there were zero college football games that ended on a defensive touchdown in overtime. Until Eric Gordon brought victory to Knoxville in the most dramatic way possible. Admittedly, the situation surrounding the memory is non-ideal. Tennessee fans are not wont to rejoice in needing overtime to beat a rival that the Vols have thrashed more often than not in the last 25 years. And the situation surrounding the game, the assurance that Tennessee had finally and emphatically locked up a bowl bid after the struggles of October, is in memory nothing more than cruel irony, the same sort that dampens the memory of one of the greatest Vols wins of my lifetime.
But a defensive touchdown in overtime, no matter the surroundings, is still one moment of pure joy, whether surrounded by a season of rejoicing or serving as one happy memory crying in a wilderness of sorrows. It has the drama and finality of a walk-off home-run in baseball, but there's more. There's the added rarity. Walk-off home-runs happen relatively frequently in the sport as a whole. NCAA football had gone six years without a walk-off defensive touchdown. And then there's the fact that, going into the play, it was viewed only as a chance for Tennessee to avoid falling behind, not a chance to secure a win. The Vanderbilt offense had the ball. They were inside the red zone. The question was not whether Tennessee would score but whether Tennessee would hold the Commodores to a field goal attempt or surrender a touchdown.
All told, it's one of the most exciting plays in sports, and it happened right in front of me. For the first time since 2003, I was sitting in Neyland's lower bowl, with my Dad and sister. We were right behind the Vandy section, at right about the ten-yard line. The throw came our direction. To the eight-yard line. Right before our eyes, we saw Eric Gordon jump the route, grab the ball, and after a brief stumble, take off running towards the checkerboards 92 yards away.
I have only witnessed two close Tennessee victories live, and in the first case, I jumped up amidst a sea of blue and shouted "Montario Hardesty!" as he burst through a hole big enough to drive a truck through and rumbled 20 yards untouched to the end zone and a Tennessee victory.
This time, I shouted "EricGordonEricGordonEricGordonEricGordonERICGORDON" as he sprinted 92 yards to glory, capping off a Tennessee victory in one of the most dramatic ways possible. And, just for the record, he can run 92 yards in about five "EricGordon"s.
There was a review, to see whether he was down. He wasn't. It was obvious. There was also talk of an inadvertent whistle that should've (wrongly) blown the play dead and given Tennessee the ball at the 25 with a chance to win. I have seen some television replays that pick up a whistle, but I will be convinced until my dying day that nobody in the stadium heard it. Even the official who blew it. The roar that went up was deafening, and with good reason. We had just seen one of the rarest plays in football: a walk-off pick six that delivered the Vols to victory.