Tennessee 23, Indiana 22: 5 things we learned from Vols' stunning Gator Bowl victory
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Tennessee football season filled with drama ended with plenty of it.
The Vols erased a two-score fourth-quarter deficit and rallied to a 23-22 victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl on Thursday night in front of a crowd of 61,789 at TIAA Bank Field.
“It took 60 minutes, but our guys continued to scratch and claw and just kept trying to find a way," coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
Tennessee (8-5) will take a six-game winning streak into the offseason, while Indiana (8-5) came heartbreakingly close to its first nine-win season since 1967.
Here are five things we learned.
Vols refuse to go down
Trailing 22-9, the Vols used an 82-yard touchdown drive to move within one possession.
Then Paxton Brooks dribbled an onside kick that Eric Gray recovered. Three plays later, Gray was in the end zone with a 16-yard scoring run to give the Vols the lead with 3:51 left in the game.
Indiana had a chance to go ahead, but Logan Justus missed a 52-yard field goal to the right. Justus missed an extra point earlier in the game.
The Hoosiers regained possession with less than a minute remaining and crossed midfield, but Peyton Ramsey's fourth-down pass sailed incomplete.
Tennessee needed to rally after third-quarter swing
Tennessee led 6-3 at halftime, riding the coattails of its defense that powered its winning streak. But Indiana opened the third quarter with a 12-play, 69-yard scoring drive.
Ramsey’s running ability gave the Vols fits all night, and his 9-yard scramble on second down set up his touchdown on a sneak.
Two plays later, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw an interception that was returned for a score, and the Vols suddenly trailed 16-6 with 8:26 remaining in the third quarter.
Vols need quarterback competition
The Vols will have five scholarship quarterbacks in spring practice if each of the quarterbacks on this year’s team returns. Having more competition in the form of incoming freshmen Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday is a welcome addition after the quarterback woes that hamstrung this season.
Guarantano finished 18-of-31 for 221 yards with two interceptions. Brian Maurer appeared in one drive and threw back-to-back passes into traffic that were nearly intercepted. That ended his night.
Guarantano, a junior, enters the offseason with a flimsy handle on the starting spot after a season in which he lost and regained the job.
Don’t bury Guarantano, though. He’s the quarterback with nine lives, and he was at his best during the fourth-quarter rally.
Tennessee navigates red-zone issues
The Vols had 202 yards of offense in the first half, but scored just six points.
How can that be? Well, it’s Tennessee.
The Vols’ red-zone woes continued. Three first-half trips inside the 10-yard line resulted in a pair of field goals. The first trip ended in a failed fourth down before Tennessee wisely just sent out Brent Cimaglia for the easy three points the next two times.
To Tennessee’s credit, it scored touchdowns on both second-half trips into the red zone. The Vols finished the season with a 48.9% touchdown rate on red-zone trips. That ranks 13th in the SEC.
Jauan Jennings offers limited impact
Guarantano desperately wanted to get Jauan Jennings the ball on his first pass attempt of the second half. The Hoosiers seemed to sense that.
Jamar Johnson undercut Jennings to intercept the pass and returned it for a 63-yard touchdown.
Jennings finished with two catches in his one half of play after serving a first-half suspension.
Freshman Ramel Keyton was one of the wide receivers who saw an uptick in playing time in place of Jennings. He made an impressive catch on a downfield 50/50 ball before making a catch over the middle to move the chains on a third down. His two catches doubled his season total.
Josh Palmer was Tennessee’s leading receiver with six catches for 68 yards.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's FREE text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.