A sold-out Neyland Stadium rocked for more than four hours. Then, when an overtime classic ended so cruelly, so heart-wrenching for Tennessee, the portion of the 102,000-plus fans wearing orange left crushed.
It may seem difficult for the Vols to feel anything besides pain after they took No. 6 Georgia to the brink before losing 34-31 in overtime, but they made more progress in this game than in the past four seasons combined.
The outmanned Vols fought back from a 14-point second-half deficit. They converted three clutch fourth-down opportunities on their way to building a late lead. They found playmakers. They saw maligned junior quarterback Justin Worley take a huge developmental step. They played a rugged, SEC slugfest on national television.
They just didn't win.
Still, it felt like a major step forward for a program trying to reclaim its past glory. With a bevy of high-level recruits visiting and their "Smokey gray" uniforms glistening in an unseasonably warm Knoxville sun, all eyes were on the Vols. They were up to the challenge.
Tennessee is not yet a SEC contender, but it played like one.
Now, the key for this program is building off this game, which it was unable to do following the 16-14 loss to LSU in 2010. That game looked like a big step in Derek Dooley's first year, but UT never pushed through for a big win during his three-year tenure.
The Vols are still searching, but they looked like a dangerous football team against the Dawgs.
"This one's painful, but I thought we took some steps as we progress in this program," a hoarse Butch Jones said on his postgame radio show. "There are no moral victories. We've got to figure out how to win these football games. But that's progress."
Worley especially matured before a national audience. He completed 17 of 31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. He didn't have any turnovers. He stepped up in the pocket and made clutch passes when the Vols had to have them. He stood poised on fourth-down situations with the game on the line.
Tied at 24-24, and with UT needing a fourth-quarter score, Worley took his team on a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to give the Vols a lead with 1:49 remaining. Rajion Neal—who had a career game with 28 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns—ran in for the score.
Said Worley on the postgame locker room radio show:
Losing always hurts, but you've got to look at the bright side. I do feel a little bit better knowing we converted on big third- and fourth-downs against the number six team in the country. So, you've got to come out of this looking at the positives.
Playing as a team like we just did speaks volumes for where this program is. Honestly, I can say I'm proud of every one of these guys.
There are a lot of Vols to laud. Neal was a workhorse. Freshman standout receiver Marquez North, who finished with four catches for 47 yards, made a tip-toe third-quarter touchdown to cut Georgia's lead to 17-10.
Sophomore Alton "Pig" Howard was Tennessee's biggest playmaker, catching four passes for 70 yards and gaining 46 more on six end-around carries.
So, it was even more devastating when, after the Bulldogs tied the game on a frantic, penalty-aided scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown with five seconds left in regulation, Howard made the critical overtime blunder.
As Howard dove for the pylon on an end-around that appeared destined for a go-ahead touchdown on UT's first overtime possession, he reached out the football. Though it was initially ruled a score, the replay showed Howard lost control of the ball, fumbling out of the end zone for a touchback.
Georgia got the ball, kicked a field goal, broke UT's heart.
"A lot of fight, a lot of will," Jones said in the radio show. "We fought to the end. We just tried to make a play at the end of the game. It was an effort play."
The effort fell short again. For a program that has played so much bad football and had so much bad luck mixed in recently, it's tough to stomach. But there are so many positives UT has to take from this game into the bye week and through the rest of the year.
That was a huge game in a huge SEC atmosphere, and Tennessee played like it did for so many successful years before the recent dark days. This team has come a long way since getting embarrassed at Oregon. They keep getting better, and Jones' gutsy coaching won a lot of support from a skeptical fanbase.
It's a first step that could become a program catalyst.
"We still," Jones said, "have to build on this."
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