The Volunteers (6-5, 4-3) and the Tigers (5-6, 2-5) were two programs heading in completely different directions as they faced off in Columbia, Missouri on Saturday night.
The Tigers were on a four-game losing streak, while the Vols were on a three-game winning streak.
Something had to give on Senior Night.
Fortunately for the Vols, it wasn’t their winning streak. Tennessee was able to handle the Tigers en route to its first bowl game appearance since 2016.
Jarrett Guarantano received the start and the Vols came out firing on the first snap of the game. The deep pass attempt to Josh Palmer fell incomplete, but a defensive pass interference call on Christian Holmes gave Tennessee the ball at its own 40.
But the Missouri defense held strong and the Vols were forced to punt just three plays later.
Kelly Bryant then found Barrett Banister down the left sideline for a 23-yard completion and the Tigers had the ball at the UT33. The Tigers were able to drive into the red zone, but the Volunteer defense held strong at the UT12. Tucker McCann hit the 30-yard field goal attempt and Missouri led, 3-0, with 8:50 left in the first quarter.
Tim Jordan got the offense rolling with a 22-yard catch-and-run on the first play of Tennessee’s next drive. A 27-yard completion from Guarantano to Palmer gave the Vols a first down at the UM20 and just like that, they were in scoring position.
Tennessee attempted three straight passes and all three attempts failed, leaving Brent Cimaglia with a 34-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. The Tigers were able to block the attempt, and took over at their own 20.
Bryant immediately hit Niko Hea for 16 yards over the middle, but that was all the Tigers could muster as Tennessee forced a three-and-out right after the catch. Barry Odom decided to roll the dice on a fake punt, however, and it paid off. A direct snap to Jamal Brooks was just enough to convert the 4th-and-1, which gave the Tigers new life at their own 45.
The Tigers couldn’t get anything done after the fake punt, though, and this time, they punted the ball back to the Vols.
Guarantano continued to find receivers downfield on the next drive. He hooked up with Jauan Jennings for a 51-yard catch-and-run over the middle that took the ball down to the UM24. It was already Tennessee’s third play of 20 yards or more on the night.
Tennessee faced a 3rd-and-8 soon after Jennings’ big reception and Guarantano was able to hit Marquez Callaway for a gain of 16 yards, setting the Vols up with their first goal-to-go situation of the game.
It looked as if Jennings was going to get the touchdown off a Jennings carry, but Nick Bolton stoned the star receiver at the goal line. Fortunately, Quavaris Crouch was able to punch it in on the next drive. Cimaglia hit the PAT and the Vols now led, 7-3, with 12:49 left in the first half.
Crouch punches it in to put Tennessee on the board!— James O'Saile (@OSaile_) November 24, 2019
TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE pic.twitter.com/YEZ47D6hQ6
It didn’t take Missouri long to get going on its next drive. A 14-yard run from Tyler Badie and a 33-yard completion from Bryant to Jalen Knox had the Tigers on the move. Badie later capped off the nine-play, 75-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown reception to give the Tigers a 10-7 lead with 9:31 left in the first half.
Both teams struggled to get anything done on the next couple of drives, but Tennessee was able to overcome multiple penalties and third downs en route to the second touchdown of the game for the Big Orange.
Guarantano found Jennings down the seam on a 3rd-and-18 for a 20-yard gain and then later on the right sideline for the 16-yard touchdown. It was a typical Jennings-like touchdown, where he broke about six tackles on his way into the end zone to give the Vols a 14-10 lead with a little over 1:30 until halftime.
But Tennessee - especially Palmer - wasn’t done. After holding Missouri’s offense to a three-and-out, Guarantano hit Palmer for gains of 22 and 24 yards as the Vols drove all the way to the UM10 with just :03 to go in the first half. Cimaglia drilled the 27-yard attempt, and the Vols led, 17-10 at halftime.
Tennessee’s defense picked up right where it left off and held Missouri to another three-and-out to open the second half. The offense was able to move into Tiger territory thanks to big plays from Jennings and Jordan, but Cimgalia had yet another field goal attempt blocked. This time, it was from 48 yards out, and Cimaglia looked like he was injured on the play.
Devin Nicholson returned the blocked kick 14 yards to the UT41, which gave the Tigers excellent field position in their bid to attempt to tie the game.
Tennessee’s defense came through again, forcing a 4th-and-1 at the UT17, but the Tigers decided to go for it. A misdirection pitch to Larry Rountree III got the job done and gave Missouri new life.
Missouri took advantage of the extra chance and scored off a double pass from Micah Wilson to Badie from about 16 yards out. Bryant threw it to Wilson behind the line of scrimmage, while Badie snuck behind the defense and into the end zone. Wilson took advantage of the biting defense and tossed it to Badie to make it a 17-17 game with 8:40 left in the third quarter.
Both teams traded punts and then it became Callaway’s turn to lead the team on a touchdown drive. With some help from more defensive pass interference calls (the Tigers had five at this point) and Callway’s two catches for 48 yards and a touchdown, the Vols were able to jump out to a 24-17 lead with :22 left in the third quarter.
The Vols would finish the third quarter with the 24-17 lead. They were now just 15:00 away from becoming bowl eligible.
Would they be able to pull it off?
Daniel Bituli got things off to a good start with a sack to kill Missouri’s drive. Now, the offense would get the ball back with a chance to really put its foot on the Tigers’ throat.
Guarantano was able to hit Palmer over the middle for a 33-yard completion, but it came at a cost. Palmer was hurt as he collided with two Missouri defenders and was helped off the field. It was another physical moment between the Vol receivers and the Tiger defensive backs in a night that was ripe with them.
The Vols were on the move, but freshman linebacker Devin Nicholson was able to knock the ball out of Tim Jordan’s hands, causing a fumble. The Tigers recovered at their own 39, looking to tie the game.
An idiotic personal foul on Shawn Shamburger helped the Tigers avoid a 3rd-and-4 and gave Kelly Bryant and the offense the ball at the UM49. A 21-yard catch-and-run from Kam Scott set them up at the UT29 and Bryant moved the ball into the red zone with an 11-yard run on the next play.
Bryant couldn’t shake a 3rd-and-11 from the UT18 and Missouri had to kick a field goal. McCann hit the 33-yard attempt, which cut the Vols’ lead to 24-20 with 8:27 left in the game.
Tennessee couldn’t get anything done on offense and would punt the ball back to Missouri with 5:13 left in the game.
It would be up to the Tennessee defense to prevent the Senior Night comeback for the Tigers.
The defense needed to be ready for anything on the next drive. Due to the remaining time and the score, it was obvious that Missouri was going to pull out all of the stops on offense.
It looked as if the Vols came through with a huge sack on a 3rd-and-8, but Bituli was called for offside. Instead, Missouri would face a 3rd-and-3 from its own 40.
Henry To’o To’o made up for the flag with a two-yard tackle-for-loss that forced the Tigers to punt the ball away with 3:33 left in the game.
The Tigers had all three timeouts left, so the Vols needed at least two first downs to win the game.
In fitting fashion, Palmer and Jennings picked up the required first downs in order to seal the game. Tennessee would go on to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016 with the 24-20 win.
The Vols will host the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-8, 1-6) next weekend for the final game of the 2019 season. Kickoff is scheduled for 4PM EST.