Vols now a win from bowl game
Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 7:01 pm
By BETH RUCKER
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — It’s taken all season, but the young Tennessee Volunteers have finally grown up a little.
The Vols found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt, just as they’ve done in every other Southeastern Conference game this season. For the first time, they found a way to win.
“When I said after the game I felt like it was a big step for our program, that’s really what I was talking about,” coach Derek Dooley said. “It was a real important time for this team. The guys didn’t flinch, and that was the first time I’ve seen that. I mean, I didn’t even have to get them going on the sideline. I was real proud of that.”
Tyler Bray threw a touchdown to Da’Rick Rogers in the fourth quarter to tie the game.
A Prentiss Waggner interception kept the Commodores from scoring again in regulation, and Eric Gordon picked off a pass and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown in overtime to give the Vols the 27-21 victory.
Tennessee’s shot at playing in the postseason appeared to be on shaky ground after losing by 42 points on Nov. 12 to Arkansas, now ranked third in the nation. Now the Vols (5-6, 1-6) can become bowl eligible with a win against Kentucky, a team they’ve beaten 26 straight seasons.
That doesn’t mean they’re counting on an easy outing against the Wildcats (4-7, 1-6).
“We’re just trying to take it one step at a time and not overthink Kentucky, because if you overthink Kentucky they’ll beat you,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “They played a really good game against Georgia. I think Georgia kind of overlooked them. So we’ve just got to go in there and just play one game at a time and just play hard against Kentucky.”
The Wildcats’ nine-point loss to Georgia on Saturday was their narrowest loss to any SEC team this season. They needed to beat both Georgia and Tennessee to become bowl eligible for a sixth straight season, and coach Joker Phillips hopes their motivation will carry over even without that goal.
“That’s the thing we talked about as soon as the Georgia game was over is our guys did a really good job getting ourselves mentally and physically ready to play in that game when we had an extra game riding on it,” Phillips said. “We have to get ourselves mentally and physically prepared to play when we’re playing for our personal pride.”
The Vols are playing a bit for their own pride as well. After a rough season that included losses to five teams currently ranked among the top 15 in the nation, they’re hoping to avoid logging consecutive losing seasons for the first time in a century.
Because of defections during back-to-back coaching transitions, injuries and some less-than-stellar recruiting classes, Tennessee has relied more heavily on young players than Dooley would like. The Vols have put 32 true freshmen on the field over the past two seasons.
Dooley told his team repeatedly at the beginning of the season that they would earn plenty of “scars” during their tough schedule and would need to learn how to overcome them to become a good team.
Sophomore offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James thinks his classmates and the freshmen Vols may have finally figured out what it takes to do that.
Published in The Messenger 11.22.11