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A Brush With Death

It’s not March, but survive and advance still applies

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Tennessee
Cam helped the Vols hold on to this one by the veeeery tips of their fingers.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The boats were docked. The crowd was in full throat. The T opened up and an insufferably long off-season of epic anticipation was finally...finally...over.

Uhhh...somebody forgot to tell the Vols they were supposed to be a top 10 team this year.

In the first quarter, Cam Sutton fumbled a punt leading to Appalachian State touchdown. Then Preston Williams dropped a touchdown pass. Then Jaylen Reeves-Maybin was ejected on a “letter of the law, but what’s a defender supposed to do?” targeting call. In the second quarter, Appy converted a 4th down and caught a D lineman in coverage on a wheel route for a TD.

And just like that, those 9 months of anticipation were confronting the reality of a 10-point deficit to a Sun Belt team. And just like that, the crowd and the team - evidence by a horrific Dobbs’ interception in Mountaineers’ territory - was panicking.

Those hoping for a halftime renaissance were briefly inspired by an Evan Berry 40-yard kickoff return, but the offense sputtered with penalties and sloppy plays. An acrobatic Cam Sutton interception on Appy’s ensuing possession gave Neyland some life again, but the offense stalled out and had to settle for a FG.

The next time down, the Vols offense looked desperate again, but a 3rd and long conversion to Malone was immediately followed by a bomb to Malone and the game was tied. When the defense subsequently got a stop, you could feel the crowd getting ready to push the team over the edge.

But it didn’t happen. The offense still couldn’t do anything, and a long punt return gave Appy a chance to hit a FG late in the 4th to win. But much like an earlier PAT, it slid wide to the right. The Vols’ offense couldn’t win it, neither could Appy given one last chance, and to OT it went.

The Vols’ possession was...adventurous. A play-action to Wolf got a quick first down (note: is that our only consistently positive pass play?), but two mediocre Hurd runs brought up 3rd and medium. For the first time all night, Dobbs improvised with his legs to escape the pocket and keep the drive alive. When two more Hurd runs went nowhere, Dobbs ended up improvising again on 3rd down. He launched, reached for the goal line, got blasted...and fumbled into a sea of black helmets. Somehow, the south end zone pylon fumble gods smiled on us this time as Hurd swooped into the sea of humanity and came out with the football.

Appy still had a chance to win, though. They probably did us a favor by throwing on 1st down on their possession, putting themselves behind the sticks. Two solid defensive plays against the option that had given the D fits all night set up a 4th down. Just like last year, we needed one play. Unlike last year, we got it. Pass breakup in the end zone. Score one for the good guys.

There’s...not really anything good to say here except we won. Dobbs ended the night 16/29 for 192 yards with negative rush yards. Hurd had 110 yards, but on 28 attempts, for a 3.9 ypc average. Kamara was mostly non-existent. The defense had no sacks. The Vols had 2 turnovers. Special teams regressed. It was really, really ugly, and we’re fortunate to have won the game.

Those narratives we crafted over the summer about explosive plays and more havoc on defense? Not tonight. Whether by design or just a complete lack of focus, there was nothing inspiring about the game plan or the execution.

But you know what? It’s a win. There’s 9 days to clean things up before we play Virginia Tech. Everything we told ourselves is possible this year is still possible. It’ll be a great football weekend. There are worse things than surviving and advancing through the first game.