Tennessee entered Friday night's NCAA tournament super regional with a nation-leading 2.38 earned run average and with 12 consecutive postseason victories inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Notre Dame didn't care.
The Fighting Irish (39-14) homered in each of the first four innings to grab a stunning 8-1 lead over the nation's top-ranked team before hanging on for an 8-6 triumph that has placed the Volunteers (56-8) just one loss away from their magical season ending. Tennessee must now defeat Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon (2 on ESPN) and again Sunday to reach a second straight College World Series.
"These guys have waited for this opportunity," Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said on the ESPN2 broadcast. "We went through this last year in Starkville, and we knew this atmosphere was going to be very similar. I'm so happy for our guys and their preparation and grinding through this.
"These guys chomp at the bit to compete, and they engage with everything we ask them to engage with."
Tennessee likely will have to play Saturday without both center fielder Drew Gilbert and pitching coach Frank Anderson, who were ejected for arguing balls and strikes during the fifth inning. Gilbert is expected to serve a one-game suspension per NCAA policy, while Anderson, because this is his second ejection this year, will have to sit three contests.
The ejections resulted in irate Vols fans throwing debris on the field, evoking memories of last October's football loss to Ole Miss inside Neyland Stadium.
"It was hard because it was chaos," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said in a news conference, "and you certainly don't want anything to make things more inflamed than they already were, but clearly that was the case. I think everyone reacted. We talked as a group yesterday about how it was going to be an emotional game.
"He reacted to the pitch and was thrown out, and now we've got to have a different guy in the 4-hole. I sure enjoy competing with him and would like to again."
Ryan Cole led off the game with a single to left field and scored on Carter Putz's two-run home run off the scoreboard in right. Jared Miller's solo shot to right-center extended the lead to 3-0 in the second inning, and Jack Zykstra's two-run homer to right in the third made it 5-0.
Vols starting pitcher Blade Tidwell, who was dominant in a Knoxville Regional shutout of Alabama State a week earlier, was pulled after three innings that yielded seven hits and five runs in 52 pitches.
"We game-planned for this," Jarrett said. "We had a thought going in on how to handle the starting pitcher, and we obviously executed that. The at-bats continued to mount and roll. We were on the fastball, and Carter got the slider that was up in the first inning."
Will Mabrey replaced Tidwell but was roughed up in the fourth inning by Jack Brannigan's three-run homer to left that made it 8-1. That saddled Tennessee with its largest deficit of the season, topping the five-run losses the Vols experienced against Texas and Georgia.
Ben Joyce replaced Mabrey with two out in the fourth inning and worked up until the eighth, when he turned things over to former Cleveland High School standout Camden Sewell.
Solo homers by Trey Lipscomb in the fourth and Jorel Ortega in the sixth pulled the Vols within 8-3, and Lipscomb's two-run double to left in the seventh made it 8-5. Jordan Beck gave the Lindsey Nelson audience one more moment of hope with a one-out solo homer to right-center in the bottom of the ninth.
"Anytime you kind of step into this environment and this house is giving as much energy as we ask our guys to give on the field, you feel disappointed you didn't do any better for them," Vitello said, "but that's the way it works. This is very competitive baseball, and they played better than we did."
Tennessee on Friday received a commitment from Maui Ahuna, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound shortstop from Hilo, Hawaii, who spent the past two seasons at Kansas before entering the transfer portal. Ahuna hit .396 in 53 games for the Jayhawks this season, collecting eight home runs, 48 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.
D1 Baseball rates Ahuna as the No. 36 prospect in the 2023 draft class.