KNOXVILLE — Nearing the end of his 11-minute news conference early Sunday morning that followed the University of Tennessee's 31-26 loss to Ole Miss inside Neyland Stadium, first-year Volunteers coach Josh Heupel had fielded enough questions to know how this one will be remembered.
Close games transpire every weekend in college football. Raining debris from the crowd — whether water bottles, golf balls or even a mustard container — typically doesn't.
"I'm disappointed that this will be a story or the story from this football game from a small amount of our fans," Heupel said, "because there were so many who represented Tennessee in a great way tonight."
The frustrated few who responded to officials marking Vols tight end Jacob Warren a yard short of the Ole Miss 40-yard line with 54 seconds remaining became the biggest story in the sport Saturday night. UT chancellor Donde Plowman was the first to release a statement, saying she was "astonished and sickened" by the fan behavior, and then Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey said the actions were "unacceptable under any circumstances."
Tennessee athletic director Danny White also weighed in on the chaos that led to a 20-minute delay.
"Our Tennessee fan base had much to be proud of through 59 minutes of football Saturday night," White said in his statement. "They created one of the best live sporting atmospheres I've ever experienced, but what transpired in the game's final minute was unacceptable. Player and fan safety is paramount at all times. While I'm incredibly proud of our team's effort on the field, I'm disappointed that their relentless performance was overshadowed in the game's closing moments by the actions of several fans whose actions did not represent the Volunteer Spirit or the true character of our university.
"On behalf of the University of Tennessee, I'd like to apologize to the Ole Miss football program and congratulate the student-athletes on a hard-fought win. I spoke with (Ole Miss) athletic director Keith Carter after the game and expressed that same sentiment to him."
Whether such a reaction would have occurred had the opponent not been guided by former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin will never be known. Kiffin was hit by a golf ball early in the delay and was asked by reporters afterward if anything else had been thrown at him.
"Bottles filled with with some brown stuff — probably wasn't moonshine," Kiffin said. "I don't think they would waste moonshine on me."
Saturday night marked the first Neyland Stadium sellout and the first checkerboard look since 2017. The Vols were hosting the nation's No. 13 team and ended the game on the Ole Miss 8-yard line, but Heupel and his players know another foundational piece will be overlooked in the takeaway department from Tennessee's seventh game of the season.
"It's been built by our players that there is enthusiasm and excitement and belief in the progress that our players are making on the field," Heupel said. "I'm proud of them for building that. We're just starting this journey together, and I'm proud of what we've done."
Said senior safety Trevon Flowers: "This is one to remember for sure. We love our fans, and maybe it was a select few who did the stuff at the end. The majority of our fans came to show support as always, and we appreciate that."
That Ole Miss entered Saturday averaging 46.2 points per game and was held to 31, including just seven in the second half, would seem encouraging for the Tennessee defense, but there was that matter of containing Matt Corral. The redshirt junior quarterback threw for 231 yards and rushed for 195 on a unit that amassed a healthy 510 overall.
"There were a lot of things we did really well, and there were some breakdowns at times," Heupel said. "I thought we made it tough on him for most of the night, but there were some quarterback draws that we have to be better against. There were some third-and-longs early in the football game that we've got to get off the field. Some of it's the twist game, and some of it is the awareness of it.
"He's a good player who puts you in a dilemma."
Odds and ends
Tennessee has recorded at least 10 tackles for loss in four consecutive games. ... Cedric Tillman's seven catches for 84 yards were career highs. ... Redshirt sophomore defensive back Kamal Hadden made his Tennessee debut. ... The Vols have now lost three straight games against former Tennessee head coaches, falling to Kiffin and losing to Florida's Doug Dickey during the 1976-77 seasons.