Game recap: Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 21
Tennessee Stat Book
Moments after the validity of his 90-yard, game-winning interception return for a touchdown was in doubt, Eric Gordon was over at the trainer's table getting his knees examined.
Gordon wasn't hurt. The trainer was simply looking for any visible evidence to gauge whether or not the Tennessee redshirt sophomore's knees made contact with the ground before his improbable play sent the 91,367 fans at Neyland Stadium into absolute hysterics.
"He said 'I don't see any white paint or no grass. You look pretty good to me,' " Gordon said. "I was pretty much confident after that."
His confidence was mimicked by his coach. Derek Dooley, after all, shook hands thinking he'd won twice last season only to see something wacky go against the Vols and subsequently lead to a loss, so this was nothing new.
"You just got to stay calm," Dooley said. "Stuff like that happens."
Hectic endings like the one that punctuated UT's 27-21 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday night have certainly happened on an inordinate basis to Dooley and the Vols over the past two seasons, but this one actually went the Vols' way.
Faced with a third-and-6 on the Vols' 11-yard line on the first series of overtime, Gordon jumped an out route and snagged the Vols' third interception of the game. Untouched and surrounded by his teammates, Gordon sprinted down the sidelines and into the end zone, conceivably clinching the Vols' first SEC win of the season.
With players and other UT staffers already celebrating across the field, Vanderbilt coaches stood patiently, pointing at the spot of the field where a side judge said Gordon's knee had touched the ground. The details get murky from there, as Vanderbilt coach James Franklin angrily protested the fact that the play was able to be reviewed.
Per NCAA rules, a play cannot be reviewed if it is blown dead.
"They blew the play dead," Franklin said. "They blew him down, but they explained to me again why you can do that and it still counts.
"They explained every call on the sideline and I didn't have my rulebook. They explained it very well. (The referees) were very pleasant when they explained them."
Though a whistle was heard on the TV replay, Dooley said he was told that the side judge never blew the play dead.
"What they ruled was his knee was down, which was an unchallenge-able play," Dooley said. "That's why we didn't challenge it. They never blew a whistle and they never ruled him down. If it wasn't down, you could challenge it. If they had blown a whistle and ruled him down, it wasn't challenge-able.
"I don't care how it got done. I'm just happy we got one."
The play served as vindication for both the Vols, who were able to celebrate the win twice rather than relive the gruesome memories of last year's finishes at LSU and against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl, and for Gordon.
A starter at cornerback last season, Gordon has seen his playing time drop dramatically this season, as he's bounced in and out at the nickel. After a Homecoming performance against Middle Tennessee State in which he had an interception and accumulated a team-high two tackles for loss, Gordon was on the field for just 10-15 plays last week against Arkansas.
"It's really tough to maintain that confidence," Gordon said. "Older vets like Prentiss Waggner and Art Evans, those guys they kept me smiling and kept me through it."
What has kept Gordon from playing more ultimately led to the biggest play of UT's 2011 season. Gordon said he jumped on the play because it was the exact same as one Vanderbilt ran earlier in the drive.
"He's a little bit of a risk-taker so sometimes he gives up some but they're not as big at the nickel spot as they are at the corner," Dooley said. "He made a huge play and it was really exciting. Then it almost got ripped out."
The uncertainty never fazed Gordon. He had all the visual evidence he needed.
"I just feel like I'm a play-maker and I need to make plays," Gordon said. "When I'm out there that's all that goes through my head, make plays.
"I was very fortunate tonight to make a big play."