KNOXVILLE – The play Tennessee fans are anguishing over and replaying countless times isn’t hard to cull from the wreckage of Saturday night’s 29-26 double-overtime loss to BYU at Neyland Stadium.
How did Cougars wide receiver Micah Simon get loose for a 64-yard reception inside the game’s final 20 seconds? How could that happen?
Simple: it was mistake.
There were other plays involved with the fateful finish that aren’t as easy to explain. One in particular sticks out in my mind. More on that later.
It’s impossible to brush past Simon’s catch when reviewing this unimaginable outcome. He ran past defensive back Alontae Taylor and hauled in a third-down desperation heave from BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. UT safety Nigel Warrior took a bad angle on Simon, thereby eliminating any chance to possibly tackle him outside of field goal range.
The Cougars rushed upfield to spike the football on the ensuing play. Jake Oldroyd followed with a game-tying 33-yard field that barely slipped inside the right upright with one second left in the regulation.
And the rest is … well … a root canal without Novocaine.
“They have to go 60 yards to kick a field goal, or at least 40,” said UT coach Jeremy Pruitt, exasperated by the turn of events. “They can play three plays, so you play on top of them.
“… One of our guys is in the deep third and one of their wide receivers got 20 yards behind the area. They’re supposed to be the deepest of the deepest.”
Even BYU sounded a bit sheepish about what happened.
Simon rationalized being so open by crediting one of his teammates.
“I was on the same side with Matt Bushman and he’s a really great tight end,” he said, “so he had a lot of eyes looking at him.”
Cougars coach Kalani Sitake was conciliatory to a fault in saying, “I think it might have been a broken coverage because we protected for quite a while.”
As for the other plays that made this meltdown moment possible, the attention turns to UT’s offense. The unit produced just three points in the second half of regulation. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s third-quarter interception set up a BYU touchdown.
Still, Tennessee rushed for 242 yards. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Vols ran five consecutive running plays. All of them were fairly basic in concept, yet they moved the football 45 yards to the BYU 30, where the Vols faced a fourth down and 1.
In hindsight, they could’ve attempted a field goal at that point. Brett Cimaglia already had matched his career high with a 51-yarder in the first half and finished four-for-four on attempts.
Going for a first down instead wasn’t so much the problem, though, as the play call. Instead of running forward, The Vols ran sideways with a reverse involving wide receiver Josh Palmer. He managed to reach the far edge of the formation - no easy feat under the circumstances - but didn’t dive forward at the play’s end and finished short of the first down with 4 minutes, 15 seconds left.
While overshadowed by the drama that followed, the play deserves its own review regarding both the choice and the execution.
The Vols were a few feet short of extending that drive, creating at least a better field goal attempt and, better yet, eliminating any chance for a gut-wrenching finish and the ensuing hangover.
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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