There’s no magic here. Gary Pinkel has said it often this season: magic plays no part in football games.
“You’ve got to make plays,” he said again Saturday. “There’s no magic here.”
At halftime on Saturday afternoon, it seemed that the game’s eventual storyline would be about how injury-ravaged, offensively-dry Missouri had reached a new bottom in a faraway place known at Rocky Top.
Of course, anything about the first half’s dismal showing would be vanquished from memory.
Of course, anything about how the Tigers mustered just 64 total yards of offense and relinquished 383 to Tennessee at that point would be forgotten. The locker room line of quarterback James Franklin (at that point, 2 for 8 for 18 yards and an interception) would be wiped away and the junior who had been speaking in soft hushes in interviews for the past two weeks would return to his smiling, elaborate self.
What will be remembered in this Southeastern Conference tussle between two league bottom-dwellers will be for what happened at the end: a good ‘ol fashioned shoot-‘em-up in the shape of four overtimes.
“We always talk about the only quarter you can win a game in is the fourth quarter,” Pinkel said. “I don't care how you play the first half; you can only win this thing in the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter this thing is over.”
At the end of nearly four hours, the temperature of Knoxville went from a moderate chill to a noticeable warm and the Tigers (5-5, 2-5 SEC) prevailed, 51-48. (With an hour to go before kickoff, by the way, the Neyland Stadium scoreboard suspiciously showed 55-48, the dangling score from the Volunteers’ win from last weekend).
There’s no magic here. But there certainly was something special about Franklin’s awakening late in the afternoon.
After tossing four interceptions last weekend in Gainesville, Fla., and failing to lead a charge in a 14-7 loss to the No. 7 Gators, he was granted shots at redemption. His coach said earlier in the week that he had “been through hell” in a year muddied with nagging injury and inconsistency.
He came out in the second half to command his team with four touchdown passes, one of which was the game-tying score with 47 seconds left in regulation. He threw three more in overtime possessions, the elixirs that ensured the Tigers’ survival against an unrelenting Volunteer attack led by quarterback Tyler Bray and allowed his team to still hope for postseason life.
Outspoken criticism from the past week followed him to Knoxville. In the third quarter, he said he peaked to the stands.
“One of the Mizzou fans was like, ‘James, you’re horrible,’” Franklin said. “After the game, the same guy was saying I was great, so I don't let that stuff bother me. It’s more so for my teammates. I just want to play (and feel) like I didn't let them down.”
There’s no magic here, but freshman Dorial Green-Beckham’s timing was quite fitting.
That was him, the former No. 1 recruit, walking on Neyland’s turf with still a couple hours to go before kickoff, bobbing his head slightly to the hip-hop booming around the stadium that can hold 109,000 strong. He walked in a team jumpsuit almost in a strut, as if the coliseum was his.
That was him, yes, with 47 seconds left in the game, hauling in Franklin’s game-equalizing throw. He outmuscled his defender and snatched that ball out of the air. He caught it with two hands on the far end of the north, white-and-orange checkered end zone and tapped both feet in bounds, just as they would in the pros.
Before the play, Green-Beckham jogged out of his position to tell Franklin he expected his side on the left field to be open. He drew up the route on his big hand.
“I saw it once we got lined up,” he said. “I saw how far the safety was playing up and thought, ‘Well, I could beat this guy to get behind me to run a post route.’”
That was him again in overtime No. 3, bringing down a 10-yarder on a crucial 3rd and 10. He looked all grown up.
And after the game, he jumped into a throng of fans sitting front row. Ninety-three students from Tiger’s Lair left in two charter buses from Columbia around 10:45 p.m. a night before to see the game and this performance from the prized recruit who came to them.
“We got great fans, just die hard fans out there so we just got to go out there and compete and make them proud,” he said.
There’s no magic here, but the emergence of a name at a time as critical as Tennessee’s final chance to seems unlikely.
But there was Ian Simon, a redshirt freshman, on 4th and 3 in overtime No. 4. He was in for an injured E.J. Gaines at cornerback. He saw how the Volunteers sent receiver Zach Rogers underneath previously on 3rd down. He anticipated it again and, when Bray went for Rogers to convert, a pocket-sized Simon at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds was there to wreck the attempt.
Afterward, he called it “my first big-time play in college football on a big stage in a big stadium.”
“I broke down crying,” he said. “I didn’t know how to react.”
Andrew Baggett knew how to react. He knew that when his number was called to put in the field goal to win the game all he had to do was breathe in and breathe out and take his steps back and, as he says, “just go.”
He said he never kicked a game-winner before.
“The kick was more important, but it's the same as every kick,” he said afterward.
There’s no magic here. But he was asked how it felt anyway; about how, at the end of it all, the cheers in this first SEC win on the road were loud and about how he and his teammates were leaping and celebrating there in the center of the field.
“It's the best feeling in the world,” he said.