NASHVILLE — Perhaps no living person is better than Gus Manning at comparing University of Tennessee football games, and putting them in their proper perspective.
Manning, UT's former sports publicity director who still works for the men's athletic department, has seen nearly every UT home and away game since 1951. He attended 608 consecutive games before injuring his ankle and missing the Volunteers' 2003 win over Kentucky, and he's been a mainstay since missing that victory over the Wildcats.
Essentially, Manning has seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the bizarre.
Thursday's 30-27, double-overtime, Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina would certainly qualify as bizarre.
UT, for the eighth time this season, stormed the field to celebrate when it had more points than its opponent as the fourth quarter clock expired.
But Thursday was the second time this season that the Volunteers were told the game wasn't over — even though Big Ten referee Dennis Lipski initially told the crowd, "the game is over," — and they were summoned back to the field.
And, with LSU being the first, Thursday was the second time the Vols lost after returning to the field.
Riding an elevator down to the parking lot after the newest Music City Miracle -- or Music City Mirage, depending on one's viewpoint — Manning was asked if he'd ever seen a season with two similarly bizarre endings.
"Two? I hadn't ever see one," Manning said.
"First time for everything, I guess," a reporter then told Manning.
"I guess so," Manning said. "They need to change that rule, though."
That rule Manning referenced was one of many UT frustrations after the game, and perhaps the most valid. Officials probably didn't have to do some of things they did Thursday, but they had to let North Carolina run one more play in regulation because, unlike the NFL, there is no 10-second runoff (clock) rule when the offense commits certain penalties, such as having too many men on the field.
UNC was given an extra second — officials correctly ruled that the spiked ball from quarterback T.J. Yates hit the ground with 1 second left — that it wouldn't have been given in the NFL.
"That's why they have a 10-second runoff rule in the NFL, and we don't have it in college," first-year UT head coach Derek Dooley said. "And we probably should get it.
"Again, that's why they have the 10-second runoff rule in the NFL, for exactly that scenario, where an offense can't do that to give themselves a chance to win."
Senior tight end Luke Stocker, who probably will play in the NFL next season, thought there was a runoff rule in college, too. And he wasn't the only one.
"I assumed it was like that in college, too. But I learned differently tonight," Stocker said. "But the rule is the rule, and that's how it is. Maybe after this game, the NCAA will look back and decide to do something differently. But as of right now, that's the rule, and that's how we're going to play by. We had a ton of opportunities besides that point to finish the game.
"We had the extra point. If we finish that, the game's over. We had the ball back with a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, and we couldn't get a first down. We had plenty of opportunities to win that game besides that rule."
Dooley and several of Stocker's teammates essentially said the same thing.
UT's head coach said he didn't feel cheated by the outcome because of things he and his team could have done before that to ice the game.
"There were a lot of opportunities before the end there to win the game, and anytime the result doesn't go your way, the first thing you should do is say, 'What could we have done differently to change the outcome?' And there were a lot of things there, just especially down the stretch.
"We had a lot of chances prior to that. We kick a ball low on the extra point, which keeps it a three-point game. They hit a seam [pass], and we get a penalty for a helmet to the back. I don't quite understand that, but I guess that's the rule. And the next thing you know, they're in field goal range.
"There's a lot of things we could have done to prevent that from happening. And that's a fact."
Here's another fact: UT's season is frustratingly finished.
"When we won, we felt like we were top of the world," sophomore offensive tackle Dallas Thomas said. "And then, after they made that call, and it was, 'Come on back to the sideline,' I just knew we was in for something bad. I just felt it.
"I can't make the rules up. That's just the way it is in life. You've got to learn from it and get ready for next year."
Thomas, unlike several seniors, will have a next year for the Vols. He said that made Thursday's excruciating conclusion a tad easier for the team's underclassmen to digest.
But only a tad.
"Eventually, we'll sit down and look at the film, and we'll see what we could have done different and all that," Thomas said. "But right now ... it's just a deep pain right now."
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