These overtime games take on a personality of their own, so much so that what happens in regulation can feel like a different week. Remember when Josh Dobbs went 36 yards on 4th and 3 at the end of the first half to put the Vols up 21-14? Remember when Tennessee made enough mistakes to give that lead away and send us back to familiar ledges? Remember when Pharoh Cooper had 11 catches for 233 yards? Remember when Jalen Hurd broke half a dozen tackles on fourth down to score a touchdown to make it 35-28?
But when overtime beckons, all that becomes prologue. History is written by the winners, so the stories that will be told about this game will start on 3rd and 18 at the South Carolina 10 with five minutes to play. The Vols had been frustrating in the second half but were in it, down 35-28 and ready to get the ball back. And then "Third Down For What" became "Third Down for WHAT?!" as Thompson ran for 20 yards and an inexplicable first down. And on the very next play, Brandon Wilds gashed a vulnerable defense for 70 yards and the assumed back-breaker, 42-28 with 4:52 to play.
At this point Josh Dobbs was already the future, already had the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback, and might have been good enough to get us through a long bye week at 3-6 with hope still intact for the present. But in Dobbs' own story, he skipped the prologue and the first few chapters and went right to the game-winning quarterback portion.
10 plays, 75 yards, Dobbs finishes it himself with 1:50 to play to make it 42-35. On the drive Dobbs was 5 of 7 for 53 yards and ran three times for 22 yards.
The Vols kicked onside and didn't recover. Carolina bled UT's timeouts to 3rd and 4. And then a defense that gave up 625 yards rediscovered its place. Derek Barnett sacked Dylan Thompson to end Carolina's drive and give the Vols the ball back at their own 15 with 1:23 to go, no timeouts.
Now in the childhood fantasy chapter, Dobbs returned to the field and went 5 of 8 for 77 yards. He hit Pig Howard for 31 on the first play of the drive to show you he meant business. He ran for eight on 3rd and 1, ensuring the Vols never even faced a must-have 4th down on either of its two final drives. And with no timeouts and no margin for error, Mike Bajakian rolled the pocket out and Dobbs found Jason Croom wide open in the end zone. Tie game. Overtime.
South Carolina's defense is not the best in the SEC. It won't always be this way and definitely won't be this way later this month. But right now, let's just step back and look at this, all by itself:
Josh Dobbs: 23 of 40, 301 yards (7.5 YPA), 2 TD, 1 INT. 24 carries, 166 yards, 3 TD.
In the last five minutes, the Vols went 10 plays 75 yards, and 9 plays 85 yards for two touchdowns. Dobbs' fingerprints were on every one of those 19 plays.
Tennessee's defense was not the best in the SEC tonight either. And when the Vol offense couldn't find the end zone in its overtime possession and was forced to settle for a big kick by Aaron Medley to make it 45-42, you might not have felt great about having the outcome back on the defense's shoulders in the most stressful situation in college football.
Instead, Curt Maggitt - a redshirt junior who has never played in a bowl game at Tennessee - sacked Dylan Thompson on first down and completely changed the game's tone. Then Derek Barnett - a true freshman who came to Tennessee for nights like this one - sacked Thompson again on second down. Take away a meaningless draw by Davis on the final play of regulation, and the Vol defense sacked Thompson on three consecutive snaps in the game's most crucial moments.
More pressure left Carolina with a throwaway and a 58 yard field goal attempt. 16 years ago we watched a Steve Spurrier kicker miss a field goal that changed some things for Tennessee. Tonight - from a few yards deeper in the hole - another Spurrier kicker missed, ending the game and, perhaps, changing some things for Tennessee.
Some things have been just beneath the surface for a long time now. The Vols clearly have young talent. Marquez North was apparently injured the entire second half and Tennessee still moved the ball through the air. We were close against Georgia. We were painfully close against Florida.
We beat South Carolina last year, but that win has faded some with time; Team 117 didn't make a bowl game and thus that season won't get remembered with great clarity. But this one tonight wasn't about luck or a great individual play making the difference. This one was much harder, and as such could end up being worth so much more.
At the very least, Tennessee goes into a bye week with a win. Not just any win, but the most important one of Butch Jones' tenure. And not just any way, but with resilience and heart and all the intangible words we love when we can use them about our football team. You can use them tonight.
From here the task remains clear: two wins in the final three games will get the Vols to a bowl and give these seniors a memory that won't fade. And it will give the future of this team and this program more and more forward momentum. Most of the things that are true about Tennessee's future would've been true regardless of the outcome tonight. But truth is so much clearer in victory.
We've had a long, hard road as Tennessee fans, so much so that sometimes all of us say things we'd like to take back later or, even worse, we can get so entrenched in our own stuff we can miss the opportunity to celebrate. But if you watched this thing tonight - watched so much of what frustrated us about Tennessee right now transform into so much of what we hope Tennessee can be - you don't need me to remind you to celebrate.
There's not a day it's not great to be a Tennessee Vol, not one. But some days are greater than others.