ATLANTA — It was a coaching decision based on desperation, inspiration or maybe a little of both.
But for whatever reason Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson decided to go for a two-point conversion at the end of the second overtime against Tennessee on Monday night, his gamble failed and the Volunteers danced out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium with quite possibly the unlikeliest victory in their 121 years of football. They nipped Tech 42-41.
This was a night in which Georgia Tech beat Tennessee about as badly as you could beat a team everywhere except that final score in this Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. First downs? Tech led 29-15 after 60 minutes of football. Total yards? Try 606 to 326 in favor of the Jackets. Time of possession? Equally one-sided, Tech owning the ball more than 41 minutes to less than 19 for the Vols.
Yet as Tennessee coach Butch Jones rightly screamed into a microphone at game's end, "This team has a will to win!"
You just don't get overwhelmed the way the Vols did for most of the night against Tech's option offense and somehow emerge victorious without a tremendous helping of competitiveness and toughness.
So here was John Kelly, looking like the best Big Orange running back since Travis Henry while running for 128 yards and four touchdowns, including two in overtime. Here was quarterback Quentin Dormady hitting two touchdown passes, picking up 221 yards through the air and throwing no interceptions despite not being terribly on target and enduring at least a half-dozen dropped balls when he was.
As stupendous as Kelly was wideout Marquez Callaway, who finished with four catches for 115 yards, both those numbers seeming twice as big during the game.
And perhaps most valuable of all was defensive end Darrell Taylor, who basically single-handedly broke up the two-point conversion that would have given Tech the win when he disrupted Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall's timing on a pitch.
You can say UT didn't deserve to win when outplayed by those statistical numbers, and you might be right. But Rashaan Gaulden forced a fumble that saved the Vols in regulation. Taylor made big plays all night. As did linebackers Colton Jumper, the former Baylor School star, and Daniel Bituli, who finished with 18 and 23 total tackles.
And without all of those plays, the Vols lose. Maybe by double figures.
But instead they made those plays. And they won the game. And they now stand 1-0 heading into Saturday afternoon's visit from Indiana State.
Which means, as Jones said in his postgame news conference: "We showed our grit, but we're continuing to evolve. We have to get a lot better. But I'm tremendously proud of us."
The Vols certainly had the crowd at the start of this one, Mercedes-Benz Stadium at least 60 percent blanketed in UT Orange despite Tech being the hometown team. They arrived early, partied enthusiastically and acted like a fan base expecting big things.
Yet for the longest time it looked as if they were going to suffer another big letdown. Just like the Oklahoma game in 2015. Or the Florida game later that season. Or the South Carolina game a year ago. All winnable. All losses.Speaking of Oklahoma, one particular Twitter follower tweeted after yet another Tech first down by land, in a nod to former OU coach Bob Stoops and a dig at UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, "Oklahoma had Big Game Bob, we've got Big Gain Bob."
Yet it was also just about then -- Tech ahead 21-7 and driving for a fourth TD -- that everything changed. For the first time all night, after more than 41 minutes of game action, the third quarter more than two-thirds done, the officials whistled Tech for an illegal block. A first down was taken away. The Jackets later attempted a field goal, which missed badly.
In came the UT offense, which had pretty much been more than doubled in plays run to that point: 29 to 62. Understandably in a hurry, the Vols moved quickly. Dormady hit a few passes. Kelly broke off a 30-yard run. Then Dormady found Marquez Callaway from 10 yards out for a touchdown to pull UT within 21-14.
Now it got to be the kind of fun game the Chick-fil-A folks surely hoped for when they pitted the late, great Tech coach Bobby Dodd's employer against his alma mater -- Tennessee.
The Yellow Jackets scored again to make it 28-14, but the Vols struck right back on a pitch-catch-and-run touchdown from Dormady to Callaway that covered an even 50 yards. UT was again within a touchdown at 28-21. More than 11 minutes remained.
And with 9:50 to play, the Vols got a huge break when Tech quarterback Marshall went to the sideline with an injury. Forcing a punt two plays later, Tennessee got the ball on its own 37 with 8:49 to go.
But UT couldn't get a first down. And when Tech went back on offense, Marshall was back on the field, albeit 89 yards from the end zone. It wasn't long after that that Gaulden forced the fumble that Micah Abernathy recovered. And that led to a Kelly run that forced overtime, which led to UT's unbelievable win.
Got to live in the moment.pic.twitter.com/LafVZuw20P— Jakob Johnson #44 (@JohnsonJakob) September 5, 2017
"I don't think I've ever been in a game where we ran 96 plays and gained 655 yards and lose," Johnson said afterward.
Perhaps not, but maybe he's never been up against a team as resilient as these Tennessee Vols.
This article is written by Mark Wiedmer from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.