By Alex Norman
Well, it wasn’t pretty, but it was a much needed bowl game victory for Tennessee.
The Vols rallied from a 13 point deficit in the 4th quarter to edge Indiana 23-22 on January 2nd in Jacksonville. It was Tennessee’s first bowl game victory since 2016, and helped them finish the 2019 season at 8-5. They also won seven of their final eight games, giving them momentum heading into the off season.
“Our kids kind of kept on fighting,” said Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. “Our coaches (have) done a really nice job, and our fan base… all the orange was there when the clock struck zero that was there when the game started, and we can’t say enough about our fan support and what they mean to everybody associated with this organization.”
Tennessee’s red zone woes continued in the first half, when three trips inside the Indiana 20 yard line netted only six points. During the 2019 season, the Vols were one of the worst teams in the nation inside their opponents 20 yard line. So instead of a commanding lead after the first thirty minutes, the Vols only held a 6-3 advantage.
Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s inconsistency remained consistent. A third quarter pass was intercepted by Indiana’s Jamar Johnson and returned 63 yards for a touchdown, giving the Hoosiers a commanding 16-6 advantage. He was benched for a series, and didn’t look much better upon his return. But Guarantano led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. One finished with a short Quavaris Crouch touchdown run to pull the Vols within six points with 4:21 remaining.
Pruitt seized the momentum with his next decision. For the first time all season, he called for an onside kick. A perfect “bunt” by Paxton Brooks was picked up by Eric Gray just as the ball went the necessary ten yards.
“It was something that we felt was there when we were breaking them down, and as the game went, we felt like it was there,” said Pruitt. “We’ve probably repped it 500 or 600 times over the last six months. (We) had confidence in our players. So (we) just felt like we needed to do it there, and Paxton laid down a great kick… We got three guys that’s going to block the three returners, and we got two guys getting the ball. Eric timed it right, and it was a great kick. (There) wasn’t much they (Indian) could do based off how they were aligned.”
A few plays later, Gray scored on a 16 yard sprint up the middle, and improbably the Vols led 23-22. Gray would be named Gator Bowl MVP with 86 rushing yards and 34 receiving yards. “Being a Tennessee boy and being here at Tennessee, it’s been unbelievable,” said Gray. “It’s been an unbelievable journey. I fell in love with the place early… it’s something I dreamed about. It’s something I dreamed about as a kid, playing college football, playing in a bowl game. Being MVP has been amazing. I just want to say all glory to God.”
Nothing comes easy for the Vols though. They had to withstand a missed Hoosiers field goal and one final Indiana drive before securing the victory.
Considering how the 2019 season started, Tennessee’s finish says a lot about the direction of this program. The Vols began with a historic loss to Georgia State, then a collapse against BYU, followed by blowout losses to Florida and Georgia. That 1-4 beginning seems like a long time ago.
“You really don’t find out a whole lot about yourself or a team until you face adversity,” said Pruitt. “And we’ve faced a lot this year. A lot of it was self-inflicting, but still, it is what it is. You know, I really think the assistant coaches on our staff, because of the men that they are and the character that they have, I really think the team kind of took on their personalities, stayed the course, looked in the mirror and said, ‘How can I improve, how can I be my best.’ Wasn’t looking for excuses. We owned who we were and worked hard to improve, and I think that says a whole lot about our assistant coaches, everybody associated in our program, and the players on our team. You know, no quitters on that team.”