Wiedmer: Finally, a UT break

Wiedmer: Finally, a UT break

November 20th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- Out on Shields-Watkins Field nothing was certain, except that Vanderbilt had thrown an interception to Tennessee defensive back Eric Gordon on the Commodores' first possession of Saturday night's overtime.

Gordon returned the pickoff 90 yards for what appeared to be a score, and thus a 27-21 UT victory in Neyland Stadium.

But then the officials ruled his knee was down at the point of interception, which meant the Volunteers offense would have to score from 25 yards away to secure the proud program's first Southeastern Conference win of the season.

Only every replay also was showing that Gordon's knee was never down. Seeing this on the giant video board, the crowd of 91,367 was going nuts, screaming at UT coach Derek Dooley to challenge the ruling.

"But you can't challenge that call," Dooley said later. "That's not a challengeable play. I wanted to find a microphone and tell the crowd that, because everybody was on me for not challenging it."

But by then the replay had gone viral, running across Neyland's giant video board, and surely every iPhone inside the giant structure. An official walked over to Gordon and said, "I don't see any dirt or grass on your knee. It certainly looks clean."

So even if Dooley couldn't challenge, the play was wisely sent to the replay booth for further review. Within a couple of minutes, the referees reversed their initial call. Touchdown, Tennessee. Victory, Tennessee. Relief, Tennessee.

Down on the field, UT defensive back Prentiss Waggner, who was injured at the start of overtime, said, "Once I saw Eric get that interception, I think all the pain was gone."

Up in the press box, UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney let out a loud, primal scream, then literally skipped toward the elevators, shouting to anyone who would listen, "We finally got a break. Woooooeeee!"

The breaks had gone against them for so long. Coaching changes. Injuries. Defections. Two games that seemed to have been stolen a year ago at LSU and in the Music City Bowl overtime loss to North Carolina.

Oddly, it had all reached a crescendo last week at Arkansas, a 49-7 loss every bit as deflating as one might think.

"The negativity," Dooley said. "It's toxic. The adversity these guys have gone through, and what happened last week, I know nobody was expecting us to come out and do much. We made a lot of mistakes, struggled in a lot of things, but we made the plays we needed to make."

And Vanderbilt, no doubt the Same Ol' Vanderbilt to its jaded, frustrated fans, couldn't make a play when it mattered most, which is at least one reason why the Commodores have beaten UT one time since 1983, though that one did come in this same stadium six years ago.

One thing both teams will agree on is the play that changed everything. With 6:32 on the clock, the Commodores on top 21-14, the Vols lined up for a field goal at the VU 5.

Behaving nothing like the old Vanderbilt that routinely lost these types of games, first-year coach James Franklin's squad blocked the kick, a play that might have almost instantly emptied much of Neyland.

At that moment Vandy got the kind of penalty that's probably secretly named the Kentucky/Vandy clause, because it's the type of flag that only the Commodores or Wildcats ever seem to earn.

It seems that because VU's Sean Richardson ran into UT kicker Michael Palardy without touching the ball, he deserved a roughing-the-kicker penalty, though a teammate did block the kick.

That meant the Vols got a mulligan, which they used for a 2-yard touchdown pass to Rogers, which was sure to wind up on ESPN's "SportsCenter" as one of the great catches of Nov. 19, if not the entire season.

So, just like that, instead of Vandy owning the football and a 21-14 lead, instead of VU heading straight for a 6-5 record and automatic bowl berth, the game was tied and the Commodores swiftly reacted to such sad news as all those Same Ol' Vanderbilt teams of the past did.

The Commodores ran three plays for not a single positive yard, then punted back to Tennessee.

The VU defense held, but quarterback Jordan Rodgers threw an interception, which soon ensured overtime.

And once in the overtime, Vanderbilt and Tennessee each returned to its former personality.

Said Dooley of the team that finally got a break: "That cloud over Knoxville blew away. We got a little sunshine."

And Vanderbilt got another bitter, bitter dose of the same ol', same ol'.