By Steve Williams
Here we go again. Hang on tight. If the season opener was any indication, Tennessee football fans may be in for another roller coaster ride.
Remember last year’s first game? It took a fumble recovery by Jalen Hurd in the end zone in overtime for No. 9 ranked UT to defeat upset-minded Appalachian State 20-13 in a very nervous Neyland Stadium.
This season, the Vols were run over by Georgia Tech and its triple-option attack (535 yards rushing) for most of the night before pulling out a 42-41 double-overtime victory over the Yellow Jackets at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Also much like last season, Tennessee is off to an unfortunate start in the injury department. The Vols lost perhaps their best defensive player, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., just before the start of the season, and then lost their best playmaker on offense, wide receiver Jauan Jennings, before intermission in the opener.
No, it can’t be a curse. Tennessee won.
However, some UT fans, including myself, didn’t quite know how to feel moments after the game ended just before midnight on Labor Day. My first reaction was we stole one. Georgia Tech had outplayed us and deserved to win.
And I wondered what’s going to happen to these Vols when they line up against the likes of Georgia and Alabama and LSU and those other SEC teams that were impressive in victory in the season’s opening weekend?
But as each day passed last week before Indiana State came to town, we heard more and more reasons why and how Tennessee did prevail against Georgia Tech.
The first reason came straight from General Neyland’s game maxims – The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. (UT had zero turnovers, while Tech lost two fumbles plus had a potential game-winning field goal blocked at the end of regulation).
Rashaan Gaulden, a red-shirt junior defensive back, produced the biggest turnover of the game when he punched the ball out of J.J. Green’s grasp from behind as the Georgia Tech runner appeared to be headed for a touchdown and the knockout blow in the fourth quarter. Instead, Tennessee took over at its 7-yardline with 4:48 to go and drove 93 yards for the tying TD with 1:29 left.
Butch Jones had talked repeatedly the week before the opener about “a will to win” and after the game he complimented his team’s “resolve and resiliency.”
There also was standout play from other veterans throughout the game, like the kick returning of Evan Berry, the punting of Trevor Daniel (he had a 70-yarder) and the angry running of John Kelly (128 yards and four TDs).
We saw new quarterback Quinten Dormady look sharper and more comfortable as the game progressed, particularly in the second half.
Outstanding performances and big plays by newcomers like wide receiver Marquez Callaway (115 yards and two TDs) and linebacker Daniel Batuli (23 tackles) were added to the positive spin, which continued to grow and spread throughout Big Orange Country day by day.
After a week to reflect and feel better about being 1-0, I believe these Vols have a fighting chance going forward.
Florida is next.
Remember, hang on tight.