LEXINGTON, Ky. — A double-digit halftime deficit on the road. An opposing offense that had more than doubled the University of Tennessee's time of possession in the opening half. And did we mention that the Volunteers hadn't won a road game all season?
Then again, the opponent was the University of Kentucky, which had lost to the Big Orange 32 of the past 34 times they'd faced each other heading into Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, oops, Kroger Field.
And that's probably the only explanation needed to explain the Vols dialing up an inspired goal-line stand inside the final three minutes of their 17-13, come-from-behind victory, a win to move them to 5-5 for the season and within a single victory of a bowl berth.
But explaining this even gets better when you consider that UK had the ball and third-and-goal just outside the UT 1-yard-line after an illegal-substitution penalty on the Vols.
So what did the Vols do against a progam many Volniacs view as The Cure? They threw the Wildcats for a loss on third down back to the 2. Then Daniel Bituli tackled wideout-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. for no gain on fourth down, locking up the Vols' third straight win and fourth in their past five games.
You can throw out all the one-word explanations you want for this comeback from a 13-3 halftime deficit. Coaching. Character. Toughness. Talent. They all applied this chilly evening in the heart of the Bluegrass.
As hamstrung as Kentucky is in playing a quarterback in Bowden who absolutely can't throw the football but with no other healthy quarterback to sub for him, the Wildcats were still within a yard and a foot of the end zone and couldn't get it done.
UT has had plenty of teams in recent years that would have driven back down I-75 with a loss. This one is cut from a different cloth, beginning with backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Not only was Guarantano the team's leading rusher against the Cats with 30 yards, but his two touchdown passes in the decisive third quarter to Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer were the difference in victory and defeat. Almost the sole difference.
Or should that be soul difference, for the passion Guarantano so often has played with when the Vols needed it most. In fact, if this keeps up he might have to accept the nickname Guarantee-O, because his entrances the last three games have pretty much guaranteed a UT victory.
Yes, the Jersey boy once more didn't start. That spot was filled by freshman quarterback Brian Maurer. And while Maurer really didn't do anything wrong, he didn't seem to inspire his teammates too much, either. UK bolted to a 13-0 lead in the strength of Bowden's supreme athleticism and decision making.
Even with a missed extra point after the Wildcats' second score, UT looked to be in for its second long night in three years at UK. But come the second half, second-year UT coach Jeremy Pruitt proved it was winning time by inserting Guarantano at quarterback for the first time the entire game.
Some would view this as less than an easy call. After all, the redshirt junior is playing with a cast on his left wrist. He's playing with half the Big Orange Nation still mad at him for the Alabama game and the other half not yet sure if it's right to forgive him for calling his own number on the goal line against the Tide, a decision that ultimately cost them any chance at victory.
But this much must all be considered, and strongly.
Meeting with the media last week, Jauan Jennings, the heart and soul of these Vols, said of Gurantano's determination to play through his broken left hand: "A lot of guys wouldn't even try to play."
And needing a big second half against the Wildcats to all but lock up the Vols' first bowl bid in three years, Guarantano took less than nine minutes to turn a 13-3 halftime deficit into a 17-13 lead that eventually would become a victory by that same score.
It wasn't only Guarantano, of course, who rose to the occasion. When it needed to the most, in those final three minutes, the defense, especially the senior Bituli, delivered the goods.
Again, to return to last Tuesday's news conference, this quote from Bituli can't be repeated enough considering what happened on that final UK offensive play. Said the linebacker regarding Bowden's challenges as a passer: "We know he's not too comfortable throwing the ball."
So they didn't worry too much about the pass on that fourth down. The Vols went after Bowden and he went down just shy of the Wildcats possibly beating UT for the third time in 35 tries.
Instead, it was yet another Big Orange victory. Good thing Guarantano keeps trying, and succeeding, in playing with his broken left hand.
5-at-10: Friday mailbag, college football turns 150, Saban's greatness, NCAA and NIL, Boeheim's bellyaching, Buffets and FSU's future