Popcorn, empty beer cans and game programs rained down on Neyland Stadium near the end of Tennessee's 31-26 loss to No. 13 Ole Miss Saturday night.
There were 54 seconds remaining, but the Pride of the Southland Band had already left the field for the night. Former Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin took it all in, clutching a yellow golf ball that was thrown at him from the student section.
"Stop throwing items onto the field," the PA announcer said.
Twenty minutes had passed since Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker hit tight end Jacob Warren in stride for a big gain on fourth-and-24. The officials spotted the ball just short, and the review confirmed the call – Tennessee had turned the ball over on downs.
That’s when the angry uproar started. Players looked on as security entered the stands to eject those who had thrown items onto the playing field. Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel and Kiffin met at midfield as the rumored potential for a cancellation spread through the stadium like wildfire.
“We just said that we’re going to finish the game out,” Heupel said. “There was concern about player safety, which there should be. But we were still going to find a way to finish the game there.”
Play resumed at midnight. It had been four hours and 21 minutes since the game had started at 7:39 EST.
Tennessee still had a shot, but Heisman candidate Matt Corral stood in its way. Corral was nearly unstoppable throughout the game, throwing for 231 yards on 21-for-38 passing and 2 touchdowns.
His dual-threat ability is what hurt the Vols the most, though. Seven of Ole Miss’ 13 first downs on third and fourth down came from the legs of Corral.
Though he had the Vols’ number, it was Tennessee which came on top the following possession. The Vols had all three timeouts left and took advantage of that by forcing the Ole Miss offense to a three-and-out.
Tennessee would have one last shot with the score at 31-26. Senior receiver Velus Jones Jr. returned the ensuing punt to the Rebels 47, giving the Vols fans in attendance life once more.
Twenty-seven seconds remained on the clock. Hooker rushed for a first, but fell to the ground in pain after a big collision. Michigan transfer Joe Milton was the next man up.
But Milton and the Vols offense sputtered. The Rebels held tough on the final play of the game, forcing Milton out of bounds before he could even let go of the ball.
“I think everybody here would say the same thing,” Heupel said. “You want Joe to put the ball in the end zone there.”
It definitely wasn’t the fairy tale ending Tennessee fans had expected. More trash was thrown on the field, a chunk of which was directed towards Kiffin.
Reactions from national media started soon afterward, but Heupel was focused on the positives from the atmosphere the crowd of 102,455 strong had created in a sell-out, the first since the 2017 season.
“Gate 21 was as deep as you could see when you get down there during the Vol Walk," Heupel said. "The first four or five hours in that stadium, it was absolutely electric. Our fans showed up in a great way. To be honest with you, that’s why I wanted to be here. I believe in this university, and I believe in this fanbase.”