KNOXVILLE — Inside what had to be a despondent locker room at Neyland Stadium late Saturday night, Ja'Wuan James tried to lift the spirits of a somber Tennessee football team.
The Volunteers went from victory to defeat in a span of about 10 minutes after visiting Vanderbilt scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left, just three plays after Tennessee thought it had stopped the Commodores on a fourth-and-inches play.
The loss knocked the Vols from contention for a bowl game and, perhaps more importantly, provided the worst moment in a season that's soured significantly in the month since Tennessee upset South Carolina.
"It was just really a quiet locker room," said James, the Vols' senior right tackle. "I went around and shook everybody on the team's hand and let them know I've got another week with them left. I'm looking forward to just being around the guys and going out there and trying to win the [Kentucky] game.
"This Team 117, we've got a week left. That's our lifespan, so we've got to go out here and make the most of it."
That's much easier said than done, especially since there's nothing more than pride and the season's fifth win on the line against the lowly Wildcats, who are winless in the SEC and have just two wins this season.
Still, it's the final game in orange for James and a handful of other seniors, which would explain his postgame gesture.
"It was just because everybody's down, everybody was emotional, everybody put everything they had into these last two weeks and we didn't get the outcome we liked," he explained. "I just wanted to keep everybody's spirits up. We've got another week. I don't want everybody moping around all week, where I'm not going to get to enjoy this week.
"We need to enjoy being around each other and being around these coaches and just go out here and have fun versus Kentucky and try and get a win."
Tennessee was in the same boat heading into the final game last season, but it had just fired coach Derek Dooley after a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt. After Saturday night, the Commodores have just three wins in 31 years against Tennessee, but two of those have come that last two seasons.
"It's very tough," safety Brian Randolph said. "Probably won't get much sleep tonight. It's going to be very tough.
"After seeing the seniors' emotions and how much it's hurt them," he'd said earlier, "I believe we can get up and send them out the right way."
The Vols could have put a win in the bag long before the controversial fourth-and-inches moment in the final moment. On two trips inside Vanderbilt's 15, Tennessee scored zero points and cancelled out the two red-zone turnovers forced by its defense, which allowed the Commodores to drive 92 yards after they began the final drive with 43 second-half yards.
"It's disappointing, and when you're a competitor, and you put a lot into it, you expect to win," Jones said. "It's all about the kids, and they had a great week of preparation.
"Tennessee football's going to be fine. Right now we're going through some things, but we have an extremely loyal fan base, a very proud fan base, a very proud university, and it's a matter of time. We'll be fine."
Vols add two
Two recruits on officials visits to Knoxville this weekend committed to Tennessee on Sunday.
Jakob Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker from Jacksonville's Ribault High School, is a four-star prospect according to 247sports.com. He had scholarship offers from UCF, Wisconsin and others. Originally from Germany, Johnson is the sixth linebacker prospect for the Vols' 2014 class.
Butler (Kan.) Community College defensive tackle Owen Williams also pledged to Tennessee on Sunday afternoon, a month after the 6-foot-2, 283-pounder committed to Texas Tech last month. The Macon (Ga.) Westside High School product is a three-star prospect according to 247sports.com and Rivals.com and the seventh defensive lineman commitment for the class.
In 10 games this season, Williams finished with 39 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks for the Grizzlies.
The Vols -- who can sign 30 and are expecting close to a dozen January enrollees -- now have 33 commitments for the 2014 class.
Jones said on his coach's show Sunday morning that X-rays taken on freshman receiver Marquez North's injured right ankle came back negative and his status is questionable for the trip to Kentucky. North, one of Tennessee's top two receivers, suffered the injury when he was tackled on his lone catch of the game in the first quarter.
Freshman tight end A.J. Branisel will undergo surgery for the torn ACL he suffered in practice last week, Jones said Sunday morning. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder caught three passes this season, including a 28-yarder on fourth down during the go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Georgia and a 2-yard touchdown against South Alabama.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...