An Epic Victory over the Florida Gators

Photography by Bruce McCamish

Amid the postgame tumult, after the crowd of 101,915 sang Rocky Top louder than ever, the UT players did something unusual. First a few, and then virtually the whole team jumped up onto the wall in front of the end zone seats to be with their ecstatic fans. “I’ve never seen a team [do something] like that after a game,” said Coach Josh Heupel. “What a great night, on campus and on Rocky Top. The Vol Walk was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The stadium was rocking for our recruits and our players. The checkerboarded stadium, the energy. I want the players to soak it in and enjoy it.” 

Photography by Bruce McCamish

The Volunteers had just beaten Florida 38-33—exorcizing a curse of 16 losses to the Gators in the past 17 games. Heupel said quarterback Hendon Hooker had “played his butt off, at an elite level, like a warrior. He was relentless in the way he competed.” The Walter Camp Football Foundation named him as its National Offensive Player of the Week as he completed 22 of 28 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns while running for 112 yards and another TD. “An efficient night,” said Heupel. Joshua Dobbs of the Cleveland Browns—the only recent UT quarterback to post such numbers—was one of many Vols for Life on the sidelines to support the team . . . and enjoy the show.

“I told Hen, ‘You special,’” said running back Jabari Small, who ran for 92 yards and a TD. “I’m in awe. But he’s the same person every day.” 

Said Hooker, understated as ever, “I’m just grateful to be able to compete with my brothers.” About the fans, he said, “We do it for them. They express their feelings, bad or good. We appreciate all their love and support.”

Photography by Bruce McCamish

With star receiver Cedric Tillman pacing the sidelines with his foot in a boot, the offense was sparked by breakout performances from receiver Jalin Hyatt and Southern Cal transfer Bru McCoy, tight end Princeton Fant—who had five catches each—and Ramel Keyton, who had three. Early in the second quarter, McCoy electrified the crowd by taking a pass on the left sideline and gaining 70 yards to the Gator 4. Hooker ran four yards to make the score 10-7. 

With a minute left in the half, Keyton made a remarkable diving catch for 43 yards to the Florida 35. “Ramel and the other receivers are always doing extra work,” said Hooker. “They make plays like that on a daily basis. That’s why I have complete confidence in all my receivers.” With 30 seconds to go, Hooker ran 16 yards to the 4. With seven seconds to go, he found McCoy in the back of the end zone to put UT up 17-14 at the half. In the post-game interview, McCoy—with the square-jawed looks of a movie star; a latter day Cary Grant, perhaps?—was understated about the “roller-coaster” that had brought him from Southern Cal, through other unpleasant stops, to awaiting word from the NCAA about his eligibility at UT. He came to UT to “do a job,” he said, and that is what he wants to do. He and Tillman have grown close. “We both come from the West Coast,” said McCoy. “We played each other in high school.”   

At the start of the third quarter, Small broke a run for 39 yards, then got a 16-yard pass in the left corner to make it 24-14. 

With four minutes to go in the third quarter, with UT facing a third down on the Gator one-yard line, Florida’s first-year head coach Bill Napier did the Vols a favor by petulantly protesting the review of a play, earning the Gators an unsportsmanlike-conduct call and the Vols a new set of downs on the half-yard line. Napier’s red-faced performance was reminiscent of Butch Jones and served as a reminder of how nice it is to have a grown-up as head coach. 

Small pounded the yard into the end zone to make it 31-21.  

Linebacker Jeremy Banks recovered a fumble by Gator quarterback Anthony Richardson with 12:34 to go in the fourth quarter. Tight end Jacob Warren had a 45-yard reception. Running back Jaylen Wright had an 11-yard run, then a five-yard run for the touchdown and a score of 38-21 with 7:55 remaining. 

Photography by Bruce McCamish

Amid a deafening roar from the crowd, Florida gave a scare with two touchdowns and a successful onside kick, but cornerback Kamal Hadden ended the game with a clutch interception. The UT fans sang, “Hey, hey, baby, I wanna know-oh-oh, if you’ll be my girl …” then, as tumult and joy ensued, the ultimate Rocky Top, the alma mater, and the leaps up onto the wall with the fans. With the win, the Vols also leapt up in the rankings – to No. 8 in the AP poll. Georgia is No. 1, Alabama No. 2, and Kentucky No. 7. 

After a bye week, the Volunteers take on LSU in Baton Rouge on Oct. 8, then meet the Crimson Tide in Neyland Stadium on Oct. 15. “I’m so proud of the growth that they’ve shown,” said Heupel. “There’s a whole lot that we can do a whole lot better.”   

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