Wiedmer: Tennessee Vols lose one to remember

Wiedmer: Tennessee Vols lose one to remember

October 6th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee wide receiver Pig Howard, 2, dives for yardage in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

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KNOXVILLE -- Saturday afternoon fading to Saturday night, the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium turned as gray as Tennessee's uniforms. Sad gray. Stormy gray. Angry gray.

Seconds earlier it had been the way football Saturdays used to be inside this massive structure. It had been alive. The Volunteers locked in a 31-31 overtime tie with sixth-ranked Georgia, the place was shaking with deafening noise and nervous energy the way it had not shaken since Nov. 14, 1998, when a late Arkansas fumble on this same soil gift-wrapped an unexpected national championship.

But that was four coaches and 15 years ago. In modern times, after four losing seasons in the last five years, for the Vols to simply reach OT against the Bulldogs was shocking in the best ways.

And it was about to get so much better. For in the first possession of that overtime roared Big Orange sophomore running back Alton "Pig" Howard, his right arm stretched straight out, his body similarly parallel to the ground, the ball inches from the end zone.

Inches. Inches from a touchdown and a lead. Inches from the biggest win this program's seen in a decade or more. Only the football somehow slipped from his fingers and floated into the end zone, then out the side of it.


Georgia's ball.

And Georgia's game when Marshall Morgan booted a 42-yard field goal to make the Bulldogs 34-31 winners and leave the Vols, well ...

"I saw the coming together of a football program today," said first-year UT coach Butch Jones. "You saw a football team, undermanned, that laid it on the line."

Nothing may be tougher in collegiate athletics than rebuilding a football program that's hit the skids. Just ask Southern Cal. Or Texas. Maybe even Penn State.

And Tennessee hadn't been at that level for years. Nor did the Vols look that way through this season's first five weekends, through outmanned losses to ranked foes Oregon and Florida, through last week's surprisingly close win over South Alabama.

Georgia might not have had the grand running back Todd Gurley against Vols, and the Bulldogs lost tailback Keith Marshall in the first quarter, but UGA was also scoring more than 40 points a game through four contests, three of those outings coming against Top 10 foes.

And when the Bulldogs took a 17-3 lead into halftime, the mind couldn't help but wonder if enough thought had been given to maximizing the potential of the gray uniforms Adidas had specially made for this occasion, as if these unis needed an extra push to be successful.

Had anyone considered filling the Vols' Gatorade coolers with Earl Grey tea? Had Joel Grey, Macy Gray or David Gray been wooed for the national anthem? What about actress Linda Gray reading a G-rated passage -- if one could be found -- from "50 shades of gray"?

Better yet, given the description of these uniforms as "smokey gray," who better than Smokey Robinson to deliver the Star-Spangled Banner? Or anything else he wanted sing other than "Rainy Night in Georgia" or "Georgia's on my Mind"?

Moreover, is it a good or bad thing that Tennessee's defense appears to age less than Dorian Gray, forever young ... and vulnerable?

But then the second half began and these Vols appeared to become graybeards before 102,455 largely approving sets of eyes and a CBS national television audience. They went for it on fourth down three times and converted all three, the biggest of those coming when a Georgia player was called for stomping his foot just before a UT punt, an apparent no-no.

(Just wondering if he stomped with the hobnail boot the late, great Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson made famous during a 2002 Georgia win in this same Neyland Stadium.)

Anyway, UT also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, which both Jones and Vols defensive back Brian Randolph admitted, "We'd been working on all week. We thought we might even get two."

And all of that conspired to briefly hand the home team the lead at 31-24 with 1:54 to go, causing Neyland to shake but not Georgia to quake.

UGA senior quarterback Aaron Murray merely guided the Bulldogs expertly down the field for a tying touchdown, then watched Howard fumble, a moment that is sure to haunt the Big Orange Nation for decades in the way Christian Laettner haunts Kentucky basketball and Bill Buckner's fielding error against the Mets haunts Boston Red Sox fans.

"He was trying to make a play," Jones said of Howard. "Alton gave us a spark today. He was trying to make a play."

Maybe that will be enough to lift the gray mood among Volniacs and maybe not. Some of that may depend on where UT goes from here. To a bowl? Or to a fourth straight losing season?

"A win would have been great," said senior kicker Michael Palardy. "But we showed today we can compete with anybody in the country. This shows we're getting back to where we're supposed to be. And everybody else should be worried."

Play as the Vols did in Saturday's second half, and that statement would tend to trend much more toward black and white than any shade of gray.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.