Late game heroics by all three phases of the Volunteer football team helped lift Tennessee (8-5, 5-3 SEC) to a 23-22 victory over Indiana (8-5, 5-4 Big Ten) in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
The first half played out like a classic low-scoring SEC matchup, with each team failing to get on the board in the first quarter. The biggest play of the quarter came courtesy of the Tennessee defense when Volunteer linebacker Shawn Shamburger made a diving grab to pick off Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
The second quarter opened with a 23-yard field goal by Brent Cimaglia to put Tennessee up 3-0. Tennessee then stopped the Indiana offense before driving back down the field. Cimaglia’s leg found its mark again, this time from 32 yards out, to push Tennessee’s lead to 6-0.
In the next play, Jarret Guarantano threw a pick to Micah McFadden. The Volunteer defense helped to lighten their quarterback’s mistake by holding Indiana to a 24-yard Logan Justus field goal as time ran out in the half.
Indiana, down by three points, came out hot in the second half. Ramsey used both his arm and his legs to put together a long drive that he capped with a 1-yard rush that gave the Hoosiers a 10-6 lead.
In the second play of the following Tennessee drive, Guarantano failed to adjust to the Indiana defense and tossed a 63-yard pick-six to Jamar Johnson. Justus then banged the extra point off the upright, leaving Indiana with a 16-6 lead.
With Guarantano benched, Brian Maurer took the field to lead the Vol offense. Maurer and Eric Gray put Tennessee into striking distance and Cimaglia nailed a 43-yard field goal to cut Indiana’s lead to 16-9.
The Indiana offense responded with a field goal on consecutive drives to extend their lead to 22-9.
Down two scores with just over seven minutes on the clock, the Vol offense retook the field with Guarantano under center. Guarantano completed five straight passes before the Tennessee hot streak came to a halt in the red zone, an occurrence that became fairly common throughout Tennessee’s season.
Guarantano missed on three straight passes to the end zone but was bailed out by a defensive hold against Indiana. Eric Gray rushed twice to get Tennessee to the one-yard line and Vol linebacker Quavaris Crouch ran the ball up the middle and into the end zone.
“[Jarrett] didn’t play good, and if you don’t play good, we’ve got other good players behind him,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said at the post-game press conference, according to Tennessee Athletics. “Jarrett performed pretty good when he came back in there.”
Down 22-16, Tennessee lined up to kick off deep but Paxton Brooks executed a perfectly placed onside kick. Just one Indiana player was lined up in the middle of the field, and Eric Gray, the game’s MVP, was able to get to the ball first.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew he was going to be there,” Brooks said on Gray’s kick recovery.
Three plays later Gray broke loose for a 16-yard touchdown run and Cimaglia’s extra point put Tennessee back up 23-22 with under four minutes left to play.
Ramsey found Ty Frygofle open downfield for a 39-yard completion, but a Vol sack pushed the Hoosiers out of field goal range. Justus missed a 52-yard field goal, and Tennessee retook possession needing just a first-down to run the clock out.
However, the Vols could not pick up the first-down, and Ramsey and the Hoosiers were given one more shot to take down Tennessee.
Ramsey picked apart Tennessee’s deep zone coverage for two long completions before the Vols adjusted defensively and began to bring more pressure. Ramsey, now with less time to throw, could not find an open receiver in time on four straight plays. The Vols retook possession, kneeled the clock out and secured the late game comeback.
The bowl game was a mixed bag for Tennessee. This was a game that Tennessee was favored to win and the Vols were down two scores late in the game. Solid play calling and clutch execution gave Tennessee the win, but a slow opening by the offense and Guarantano’s pick-six nearly led to the Vols’ downfall.
“We probably messed it up about as bad as you can for the middle eight of the game,” Pruitt said.
However, Tennessee secured a bowl win at a crucial time for the Volunteer program in Pruitt’s second year as head coach. The Vols did this by executing when it mattered most while putting up 374 total yards and holding Indiana to 303.
Now Tennessee will reload during the offseason in an attempt to continue the Vols’ recent success.
“The team is in really good hands,” senior linebacker Daniel Bituli said. “There are a bunch of hungry guys and guys that want to go out there and compete, guys that are here to win games.”
Stay tuned to TNJN.com for offseason football news and coverage of Tennessee’s Orange and White game this spring.
Edited by Libby Dayhuff and Ben Gleason
Featured image courtesy of Ben Gleason