JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There isn't much that makes sense about Tennessee's 23-22 win over Indiana on Thursday night in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
But then there wasn't much that did make sense about the Volunteers' 2019 season.
They lost consecutive home games they shouldn't have to start the schedule as a lackluster opening performance against Georgia State was followed by a 29-26 overtime loss to BYU, a game Tennessee led 16-13 with less than 30 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
The Vols went through changes at quarterback. Four players started at that position during the season before redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano, the starter at the beginning who lost his job midway through, reassumed the role late in the schedule.
The Tennessee defense, which struggled with alignment as well as generating backfield pressure early in the season, seemed to figure things out midway through and became a dominant unit.
Against the Hoosiers, Tennessee appeared to revert back to the version of itself that started the season 1-4 and had many questioning second-year Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt's ability to lead a program. Guarantano and the offense couldn't finish a drive Thursday; the defense had multiple offside penalties.
Tennessee moved the ball downfield on the first series of the game, buoyed by a 46-yard completion from Guarantano to freshman Ramel Keyton — the starter in place of senior Jauan Jennings, who was suspended for the first half by the Southeastern Conference due to his actions during the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt — but the Vols' red-zone struggles began early as they failed to score on four passes inside the Indiana 10-yard line.
The Vols moved inside Indiana's 20 two more times in the first half, but they had to settle for field goals by Brent Cimaglia on both trips. Meanwhile, Tennessee's defense was shutting down a potent passing attack that ranked in the top 20 in the country.
Tennessee's 6-3 halftime lead wasn't indicative of just how dominant it had been to that point. It shouldn't have been close.
But this season, that was Tennessee.
Early in the schedule, the Vols wrestled defeat from the jaws of victory. Thursday night, they did the opposite.
With his team down 22-9 and not moving the ball, Guarantano — who was benched for a series in the second half in favor of freshman Brian Maurer — returned to the game and led a pair of touchdown drives.
Guarantano was 11-for-20 passing for 130 yards with two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown, before being pulled. When he returned, he went 7-for-11 for 91 yards, completing six of his final nine passes for 92 yards in the final two drives.
"Sometimes as a quarterback, it helps to go over there and watch it from the sideline for a couple of series, to see something you didn't before, gather your composure and figure out what you need to do to play better," Pruitt said. "When the game was on the line, that's who we wanted in the game, and he came through like he has in the last six games."
Pruitt also took a chance that had not worked for the Vols in years past.
After Quavaris Crouch's touchdown run that cut Indiana's lead to 22-16 with 4:31 to play, Pruitt elected for an onside kick by Paxton Brooks. Tennessee hadn't recovered one of its own onside kicks since Sept. 10, 2011, against Cincinnati — when Butch Jones was head coach of the Bearcats, prior to taking over in Knoxville — but Eric Gray properly allowed the ball to go 10 yards before recovering it for the Vols.
"Well, in practice I feel like I've had like 500 reps of the onside kick because we've repped it so much," Gray said. "But I'm just glad that I caught it when it was 10 yards."
Tennessee got the ball at its 46, and on the third play of the series, Gray ran 16 yards for the touchdown that made it 22-all, with Cimaglia's extra-point kick providing the winning margin. Gray was named MVP of the game after rushing for 86 yards on 14 carries and making two catches for 34 yards.
The Hoosiers and the Vols both finished the season 8-5.
Thursday night's contest started off as a game Tennessee appeared to be in command of and was poised to dominate.
It ended with the Vols just figuring out a way to win.
No other way would make sense.