In of one of the wildest finishes possible, No. 13 Ole Miss spoiled the Vols’ best efforts at an upset Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. The Rebels held off the Vols, 31-26, but not before a controversial call and its aftermath threatened to end the game prematurely.
Here are three takeaways from the chaotic, memorable game.
Controversy to the end
In the end, the game came down to the last play. With these two offenses, that seemed likely ahead of time. But the game took the strangest path possible to get there.
The chaos started with the Vols driving around midfield with under five minutes to go. They got as far as the 50-yard line, but a sack and a holding penalty pushed them to a fourth-and-24 scenario. Hendon Hooker connected with Jacob Warren for a long catch and run, but he only got 23 yards. The ball was spotted short and replay upheld the call.
That’s when pandemonium broke out. A small portion of the checkered 102,455 fans started throwing their trash, empty bottles and even a golf ball onto the field and at the Ole Miss sideline. With 54 seconds left on the clock, the game was delayed 20 minutes, and at one point it seemed like the Vols might have to forfeit, as officials struggled to get control of the situation.
When tempers calmed down and play finally resumed, the Vols’ defense came up with one of the biggest stops of the night, forcing Ole Miss to punt. Velus Jones Jr. returned the kick passed the 50-yard line, and the Vols had a chance to steal a win from Ole Miss.
Hooker took off on the first play of the drive and was injured after picking up a first down. Backup quarterback Joe Milton III came in and got the Vols in the redzone, but needing one play to win the game, he ran out of bounds short of the goal line as time expired.
What disappointed head coach Josh Heupel the most about the whole affair was that the actions of a few fans took away the spotlight from an otherwise great atmosphere and a Tennessee team that played ranked Ole Miss very well – within a play of an upset.
“I am disappointed that will be the story from this football game from a small amount of our fans because there were so many that represented intensity in a great way tonight,” Heupel said.
No corralling Corral on third down
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral was a top Heisman Trophy candidate coming into the night, and Tennessee got to find out exactly why firsthand. The Vols’ simply had no answer for the junior signal-caller, who put up career-highs on the ground.
Corral finished as Ole Miss’ leading rusher, totaling 195 yards on 30 carries, averaging over 6 yards per rush. On top of the ground damage, Corral also threw for 231 yards a 2 touchdowns, as the Rebels out-gained Tennessee 510 yards to 467.
“(Corral) is a good player, and he puts you in a dilemma,” Heupel said. “Some of those plays were broken plays. Seeing what they were running on that side of the football, RPO option. The run wasn’t there, the throw wasn’t there, and he broke contain and made a heck of a play. He’s a good football player.”
Those numbers were bad enough for the Vols, but what made it worse was the time at which it came – mostly in third and fourth down scenarios. Corral ran for 7 of Ole Miss’ 13 first downs on third and fourth down and threw for 3 more.
Nearly every time the Vols brought pressure, Corral would escape the pocket by running right up the middle with plenty of green grass ahead of him. His longest carry of the night – 32 yards – came on that same formula, though on a first down carry.
“We didn’t play smart enough to make the plays that were there for us and beat ourselves in some way,” Heupel said. “I’m not taking anything away from Ole Miss, that’s a really good football whose quarterback is a special player.”
With the mayhem of the game’s final minute, most of what Hooker did will be forgotten. But the Virginia Tech transfer had a crucial part of the Vols being within striking range late in the game.
Hooker passed for 233 yards and a touchdown – a season low for him in that regard – and ran for 108 yards and another score on the ground. No particular figure really stands out, but it was solid enough all around, especially given the play of his offensive line that was missing both the Mays brothers.
To start the second half, Hooker led the Vols on 3 straight scoring drives to pull within 5 points of the Rebels. Tennessee actually outscored Ole Miss 14-7 in the second half and out-gained it 326 yards to 197.
Late in the fourth quarter Hooker led the Vols on two more pivotal drives. The first ended in the controversial spot on Warren’s catch, and the second ended with Hooker injured on a run. He came out for Milton and the rest is history.
Heupel did not have an update on Hooker’s status after the game, but the loss of the Vols’ quarterback cannot be understated, as Heupel already called Tennessee “the thinnest football team in America.”
Heupel is hopeful that the next-man-up mentality that has carried the Vols thus far will turn into success down the road.
“We have way more guys injured than you would want,” Heupel said. “The fight and competitive spirit inside of our locker room, the want to play for the guy next to you because you love him, and you’re willing to do anything. We are developing and growing the right way. Those pillars inside of our program, if we keep building upon those, we are going to have a chance to have a really special program here.”
The Vols will look to put the craziness of Saturday behind them and focus on another difficult challenge, a road trip to Tuscaloosa and No. 5 Alabama, fresh off a 49-9 win over Mississippi State.
That matchup is scheduled for a 7 p.m. EST kickoff on Oct. 23 and will be broadcast on ESPN.