As Tennessee's football team stormed the field for the celebration dog pile, all the pain and frustration from two failed coaching changes and five forgettable seasons stayed on the sideline.
With more than 250 former Volunteers in Neyland Stadium for "Vol For Life Day," UT rekindled some of that old glory, making crucial plays to upset South Carolina, 23-21. Michael Palardy's 19-yard field goal split the uprights as time expired to erase years of disappointment.
With the win, UT first-year coach Butch Jones accomplished in seven games what Derek Dooley couldn't in three years—get his signature win.
The victory over the No. 11 Gamecocks was UT's first over a ranked opponent since beating South Carolina in 2009 under Lane Kiffin. It was also the Vols' first win over a top-15 team since 2007.
Most importantly, the win announced the return of the Vols to a national audience.
The Vols continue to improve every week. After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Georgia two weeks ago, the Vols couldn't afford to fold emotionally. Coming close against the Bulldogs couldn't be the season's highlight.
UT didn't lay down. Instead, the Vols built off that near-miss and completed the upset, playing the type of tough-nosed, run-oriented, defensive-minded football that was reminiscent of the success of the '90s.
For a team not anywhere near where it needs to be from a depth and talent perspective, it was an impressive, resilient display that reflects strong coaching.
Under Jones, Tennessee is back to stay.
UT senior defensive end Marlon Walls—who had the game of his life with four tackles and 2.5 sacks—explained to the Vol Radio Network during the postgame radio show what this win, and Jones, means to Tennessee:
We've been through a lot, the older guys. A lot of games like that, we've gone out and lost. We'd run through a wall for that guy. I'm sure y'all can see it. He's a great coach, a great motivator, and more than that, he's like a father to us.
For a while at the end, it looked like UT would fall short again. That's when true freshman receiver Marquez North made Tennessee's biggest play in more than half-a-decade.
The Vols got the ball with no timeouts left and two minutes, 48 seconds remaining. After two poor Justin Worley passes, UT was facing 3rd-and-10 from their own 35 when Worley lofted up a prayer for North.
With a South Carolina defender hanging all over him, North made a miraculous, one-handed catch at the Gamecocks' 26 putting UT in business.
"That," fellow receiver Alton Howard said in the Vol Network's postgame radio show, "was a special play."
Four Marlin Lane runs and 23 yards later, Worley spiked the ball to set up the field goal, and Palardy converted. The emotion was almost too much to contain, the kicker said.
"It was definitely my first experience [in a game-winning situation]," Palardy said on the radio show. "I was so excited, I could almost cry. Confidence is a powerful thing. Coach Jones instills confidence in us like no other."
Tennessee played confident, consistent football for much of the game. The Vols had 18 first downs to South Carolina's 17. They also had no turnovers in a game when every possession was critical.
When Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw surged his team back to a 21-17 lead, Tennessee responded, kicking a field goal and tightening its defense.
But facing 4th-and-4 from the 49 with three timeouts left inside 4 minutes, Jones controversially elected to punt. UT forced a three-and-out, though, and Jones looked brilliant for the decision when the Vols took their final possession down for the game-winner.
It was yet another clutch call that went Jones' and Tennessee's way. Against Georgia, the first-year coach elected to go for it three times on fourth down in the second half, and the Vols converted all three to gain confidence in their coach and in themselves.
This time, nobody on Tennessee's team hung his head when the punt was called. Instead, the defense stopped South Carolina, North made the miraculous catch, Lane surged them closer and Palardy made the kick.
It was winning football, something UT used to do on a weekly basis and something that has been gone from Knoxville for too long.
With Jones at the helm, that mentality is back.
"Belief is a very powerful thing, and our kids showed great resiliency today," Jones said in his postgame radio show.
"It is just one of many more to come as we continue to progress."
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