KNOXVILLE — Eric Gordon stepped in front of the pass, caught it and saw nothing but green and the survival of Tennessee’s bowl hopes in front of him.
The Volunteers overcame some mistakes and needed some breaks, but there were nothing but smiles.
“Maybe the ol’ luck has turned on Tennessee,” Vols coach Derek Dooley said.
Gordon, a redshirt sophomore from Nashville, returned an interception 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown as UT beat Vanderbilt 27-21 in overtime for its first Southeastern Conference win of 2011. The Neyland Stadium crowd was announced at 91,376.
With a win next Saturday at Kentucky, UT would clinch bowl eligibility. The Commodores, under first-year coach James Franklin, need a win at Wake Forest to do the same.
Gordon’s playing time has been sporadic this season despite his knack for being near the football and making plays. Dooley has called him a risk taker, and his gamble Saturday night paid off in a big way, though the officials originally ruled his knee hit the ground.
After a review, the officials correctly determined that Gordon did not go down.
The review itself wasn’t a correct procedure, as it turned out. Long after the game was over, the SEC office sent a notice that the play should not have been reviewed because a whistle was blown, but there would be no change in the outcome.
According to the statement from Steve Shaw, the league’s coordinator of officials, “During the play, the head linesman incorrectly ruled that the Tennessee player’s knee was down when he intercepted the pass by blowing his whistle and giving the dead ball signal. The play was reviewed as if there was no whistle on the field and as a result, overturned the incorrect ruling. By rule, if there was a whistle blown, the play is not reviewable.”
All Gordon knew in the immediate aftermath was that he won the game for his team.
“Words can’t describe that feeling,” he said of the NCAA’s first game-ending interception in overtime since Ohio beat Pittsburgh on one in 2005. “It was the play I broke up earlier in the series when I batted the ball down. They did the same route, and I said, ‘This can’t be real right now.’”
The Vols actually had to be saying that all night with the way their opponent was squandering chances, which UT has done all season. The Commodores missed two field-goal tries, had a catch-and-run to the UT 1 negated by a silly clip well behind the play on offensive lineman Josh Jelesky and committed four turnovers.
None of those mishaps, though, was the biggest break of the game.
That came with seven minutes remaining in regulation and Vanderbilt up 21-14, when UT kicker Michael Palardy drilled his 22-yard field-goal attempt low into the UT line. Vanderbilt defensive back Sean Richardson was called for running into the kicker, a penalty that moved the ball from UT’s 5 to the 2 and gave the Vols another play.
“Every obscure rule that could happen has happened to us this year,” Franklin said. “We didn’t play well. You can’t turn the ball over. You can’t make mistakes. On the road in this league, you can’t do that. We’re just going to stick to our plan and trust in our process.”
With new life, Dooley decided to go for it.
UT quarterback Tyler Bray, who was in his first game back in five weeks after breaking the thumb on his right hand, connected with Da’Rick Rogers, who made an acrobatic one-handed catch to tie the game. It was UT’s first second-half points since the Buffalo game six weeks ago.
“Charlie Baggett, my position coach, was telling me we’re throwing a fade to you, so that showed the faith they had in me,” said the sophomore from Calhoun, Ga., who caught 10 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. “I know I’ve got to make this play.”
That was UT’s first play on offense in nearly a quarter. Vanderbilt linebacker Archibald Barnes intercepted two Bray passes. The first set up tailback Zac Stacy’s touchdown run in the second quarter, and Barnes returned the second 100 yards to tie the game at 14 in the third quarter.
UT’s offense didn’t get a first down until its tying drive, after Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers passed to Chris Boyd on a 20-yard go-ahead touchdown just three plays after a fourth-down conversion.
“We hit a lot of adversity in the third quarter, and that’s what made me even prouder of this team,” Dooley said. “We know how we’ve been doing in the second half. We got the breaks tonight, we really did. It was the first time, I feel like, we had a lot of good luck on our side.”
UT made some of that luck. Malik Jackson stripped Rodgers, and Rod Wilks’ scoop-and-return set up UT’s first touchdown, a 1-yard run by Tauren Poole, who had 107 yards on 19 carries. Linebacker Austin Johnson intercepted Rodgers on Vanderbilt’s second possession, and defensive back Prentiss Waggner picked off Rodgers with 20 seconds left and the Commodores at the UT 40.
Bray finished 16-of-33 passing for 189 yards, and though he was clearly not 100 percent, having him back was an evident boost for UT’s confidence.
“He struggled a lot,” Dooley said. “I told you guys he wasn’t going to look like his form from six weeks ago, but he made enough plays to win the game.”
In the first half, Vanderbilt ran 39 plays to the Vols’ 22, outgained UT 175-126 and nearly doubled UT in time of possession (20:04 to 9:56). But the Vols led 14-7 at halftime.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a football team in all my years,” Dooley said. “With the adversity that these guys have gone through and with what happened last week [in the 42-point loss at Arkansas] — and I know nobody was really expecting us to come out and do much — we just gritted out a win, and that was fun to watch. We made a lot of mistakes, struggled at a lot of things but we showed a lot of resolve and made the plays that we needed to make.
“It was a big step for our program to be able to take one in the fourth quarter and find a way to win. I’m proud of them, I don’t know what else to say.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...