KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s senior day was hijacked by a freshman on Saturday. Mother Nature tried to dominate as well, with second effort no less.
The Vols regular season football finale against Vanderbilt was delayed at the outset by inclement weather. It was interrupted again with 7 minutes, 38 seconds remaining, shortly after lightning flashed beyond the north stands.
In both cases an ominous weather radar image – not football highlights – played on a continuous loop on the stadium jumbotron.
UT coach Jeremy Pruitt began his postgame comments following the 28-10 victory by thanking the fans for lasting throughout the soggy conditions.
It was that kind of day at Neyland Stadium. Lamonte Turner’s game-winning 3-pointer in the Vols’ 72-69 basketball victory over VCU had its moment in the press box. So did the strange twists and turns of Alabama’s loss to Auburn.
Even the victory over the Commodores played out in a fashion that befit the day’s unusual nature. For instance, the game’s greatest highlight inspired the following reaction: Who’s Kelsey Finch?
Finch holds the school record for Tennessee’s longest run from scrimmage with a 99-yard dash against Florida in 1977. Vols freshman Eric Gray gave this dusty bit of trivia some relevance. In the second quarter, the first-year running back took a handoff from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, burst through a big hole at the line of scrimmage, scooted past a diving, would-be tackler and sprinted 94 yards for the second longest TD run in program history.
When he was done running, Gray’s day added up to 246 yards, which amounted to a program single-game record for a true freshman. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder from Memphis ran for three touchdowns and averaged 9.8 yards per carry.
“That’s just a testament to the (offensive) line,” he said. “It just broke for me tonight.”
Gray was an unlikely hero, considering he had 207 rushing yards coming into the game. His longest run from scrimmage was a 16-yarder at Florida on Sept. 21. His lone TD had come on a 13-yard reception against UAB on Nov. 2.
Pruitt thought Gray’s performance resulted from opportunity and perseverance. Pruitt said that fellow running back Ty Chandler was limited by an ankle injury. He didn’t have a single carry. Furthermore, Gray was showing some signs in practice of bouncing back from a mid-season slump.
“I think Eric in the middle part of the season maybe lost a step,” Pruitt said. “Over the last couple weeks, he looked like his old self and had a little more pep in his step.”
Actually, Gray said that he’s in the process of shedding his former running back self and becoming a wiser, quicker version.
“You learn that holes close quickly and you have to hit them fast,” he said. “… I think I’ve learned how to be a college running back.”
It took the Vols awhile Saturday to realize that handoffs were a better option than passes on a rainy day. Guarantano whiffed on his first seven pass attempts, unless you’re counting a completion to Vanderbilt cornerback Jaylen Mahoney at Tennessee’s 33-yard line, which set up a Commodores’ field goal.
Gray’s first carry went for 56 yards and a touchdown. The Vols never trailed thereafter in winning their fifth consecutive game, ending a three-game losing streak against Vanderbilt and making the day worthwhile for every Vol involved, especially the seniors.
“I can’t say enough about the leadership they provided throughout the course of the year,” Pruitt said. “Those guys stayed the course.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org