By Jimmy Hyams
Shades of Gray – Eric Gray – carried Tennessee to an odds-defying victory over Indiana 23-22 Thursday night in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
Gray, a freshman running back, sparked a late-game touchdown drive, recovered an on-side kick, then scored the game-winning touchdown with less than four minutes left as the Vols rallied from a 22-9 deficit in the fourth quarter.
FBS teams were 0-471 this season when trailing by 13 with less than five minutes left – until UT’s win.
UT was 0-for-14 on on-side kicks since 2011 – until Gray’s recovery.
And Jeremy Pruitt was 0-10 as Tennessee’s coach when trailing after three quarters – until Thursday night.
“Everybody in the country gave up on this team,’’ Pruitt said, “but the fans didn’t.’’
Tennessee (8-5) looked all but doomed after punting the ball with nine minutes left, down 13. The offense hadn’t scored a touchdown in over three quarters and looked stuck in neutral. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had played so poorly, he got pulled in the third quarter after throwing a pick six.
But seemingly out of nowhere, with 7:06 left and pinned back at its 18, the offense clicked.
“We were just saying, `We got to put on more steam. The game is not over,’’’ Gray said.
No, it wasn’t.
With Indiana playing what appeared to be a prevent defense, Guarantano hit Gray on two check downs for 12 and 22 yards. Then, he found Jauan Jennings for 23. A holding call on Indiana on third-and-10 gave UT a first down at the 6, and Quavaris Crouch scored three plays later on a 1-yard power run to make it 22-16 with 4:21 left.
Plenty of time to kick deep, get a stop and try to score.
But Pruitt had other ideas – like an on-side kick. Film study showed a gap in Indiana’s front line on kickoffs.
“Coach said it was there,’’ said kicker Paxton Brooks. “We saw it in the formation and got the look we wanted. I just had to put it in that gap.’’
He did so with precision. Gray waited until the ball barely traveled 10 yards and made the recovery against a stunned band of Hoosiers.
“Perfect play, perfect kick, perfect call,’’ said Marquez Callaway.
So why the on-side kick?
“We were down a score,’’ Pruitt said, succinctly, later adding that UT had practiced that onside kick 500-600 times.
From his 46, Guarantano, who didn’t complete a pass in the third quarter, hit Josh Palmer for 24 yards. A face mask moved the ball to the Indiana 16. Two plays later, Gray followed Trey Smith’s block into the end zone.
Brent Cimaglia added the game-winning point after with 3:51 left.
That was plenty of time for Indiana to respond and it did, completing a 39-yard pass. But Logan Justus, who missed an extra point earlier in the game, hooked a 52-yard field-goal attempt with 2:12 left.
UT was stopped a foot from gaining a first down and running out the clock. After a punt, Indiana took over at its 19 with 55 seconds left and non timeouts.
Indiana had completions of 24 and 12 yards to reach the UT 45. But quarterback Peyton Ramsey – named after UT’s Peyton Manning – misfired on four consecutive passes.
“It feels amazing,’’ said Gray, voted the game’s MVP. “You couldn’t dream of something like this.’’
Guarantano turned what could have been a nightmare into a dream-like ending.
“Crazy game,’’ he said. “We won, so I’m thankful for that.’’
The victory was the sixth in a row for UT and the seventh in eight games after stumbling out of the gate 1-4, including a loss to Georgia State, a 25-point underdog.
“We love each other man, that’s all there is,’’ Guarantano said of the turnaround. “Eight-and-five is a good year but it could have definitely been better. I’m just glad we finished on a high note.’’
So is Pruitt. He made the risky decision to bench Guarantano, then go back to the junior in the third quarter.
“Sometimes as a quarterback,’’ Pruitt said, “when you stand on the sidelines a series or two, the game slows down. We weren’t playing at our best there (at quarterback).’’
The Vols hit their stride when they went to a two-minute offense.
“We probably should have gone (uptempo) earlier in the game,’’ Pruitt admitted. Pruitt praised his team for its grit.
“Our guys kept fighting, trying to find a way to win,’’ Pruitt said. “It’s a 60-minute game and it took all 60 minutes.’’