KNOXVILLE — Marlon Walls was unable to watch.
After all, Tennessee’s football program had reached the precipice of a marquee win before, most recently against Georgia in Knoxville two weeks ago.
So as Michael Palardy lined up a short potential game-winning field against 11th-ranked South Carolina inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the fifth-year senior defensive end and other teammates turned and faced the crowd.
“Told them to let us know if goes in,” Walls recalled.
“And the fans let us know.”
That they did.
As Palardy’s 19-yard kick sailed through the same uprights where Georgia won in overtime two weeks ago, the stadium erupted as the weight of 19 games and nearly four years of blowouts and near-misses against ranked teams was lifted off the Volunteers’ shoulders in a 23-21 come-from-behind win against the Gamecocks.
“It feels good, man,” said Walls, who had 2.5 sacks in the game. “I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I think tomorrow I’ll wake up and it’ll hit me, and I’ll realize we finally pulled it off.
“I’m just excited for my teammates. I was excited to look out there on the field and see my teammates going crazy and looking up there in the stands and finally seeing the fans able to [celebrate]. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s amazing. It’s a blessing.”
The moments after the game showed how much the win meant to the program and its fan base.
Players and coaches hugged, and the team ran over to celebrate with the band and the students that spent their fall break Saturday at the game. Secondary coach Willie Martinez nearly knocked defensive coordinator John Jancek to the ground after racing down to hug him from the coaches’ booth. Safety Byron Moore soon joined the three-man bear hug.
“I think it helps in the matter of belief,” first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago, and it was gut-wrenching, but also our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing.
“We had pointed to this game for a long period of time, and our kids were ready to go.”
The Vols built a 17-7 lead in the first half before South Carolina rallied to take a 21-17 lead on the arms and legs of quarterback Connor Shaw. The Gamecocks dominated the third quarter, scoring two touchdowns and outgaining the Vols 166-44. Momentum swung to the garnet-and-black visitors, looking for their fourth straight win against Tennessee.
As its defense sunk in its feet, Tennessee’s Marquez North made the game’s two biggest plays.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman outleaped South Carolina safety Brison Williams for a 48-yard gain that set up a field goal early in the fourth quarter, and after the Vols couldn’t move the ball despite forcing the Gamecocks into three consecutive three-and-outs and knocking Shaw out of the game, North struck again.
With Gamecocks cornerback Ahmad Christian draped all over him, North hauled in another jump ball with a one-handed catch that gained 39 yards and put Tennessee in Palardy’s range.
“Having the big body that he has, and the athletic ability that he has, you have to have confidence in being able to go up and throw the ball in one-on-one situations,” said Vols quarterback Justin Worley, who was 19-of-34 passing for 179 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers.
“I like my chances with Marquez, and he proved that today.”
In just his seventh game, Jones landed the signature SEC win that eluded predecessor Derek Dooley the past three years.
“We needed that, man. Desperately,” said tailback Rajion Neal, who ran for 77 yards on 24 carries. “It’s been a long time. That’s something that I think is going to jumpstart and push us in the right direction.”
“It’s real big,” added fellow tailback Marlin Lane, who also didn’t watch Palardy’s game-winning kick. “Just Coach Jones, I’m pretty sure everybody on the team — me as well — would run through the wall for him. He shows a father figure instead of just a coach, and he’s brought us together since he got here day one.”
Saturday’s win carried more significance to players like fifth-year senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood — one of three players left from Kiffin’s infamous 2009 signing class — and the Vols’ 2010 signing class, which beat their first ranked team.
“To me it means everything,” Hood said. “It’s kind of what we wanted to do this season as seniors, the foundation we wanted to set. For the guys who have been here through everything … for us four that have been through everything that we have, it’s nice to finally get that one win that we’ll be able to talk about when we’re 90.”
Jones directed the band after the game, but he seemed rather calm in his postgame session with the media.
“It’s just the next win,” he said. “It’s a big one, but it’s win No. 4. It gets us one step closer to our goal.
“I do think,” he’d add, “we took a major step forward.”
One that could go a long way toward getting Tennessee’s program back on track.
“He’s brought his championship habits, which he always uses that term, to Tennessee,” Worley said. “It’s taken us about five and six games to really figure out what we’re doing is the right way and what we’re doing is going to help us in the long run. Our effort that we play with, our physicality — we say we want to play relentlessly, and I think we’re trying to bring that every single day, and it’s starting to pay off.
“We’re starting to see that what he’s brought here is what’s going work for us.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...