Tennessee rallied for 14 points in the final quarter en route to a thrilling 23-22 win over Indiana in the 75th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Stadium.
With the victory, UT finishes the season 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC to give second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt his first bowl win.
After recovering an onside kick with 4:19 to play, freshman running back Eric Gray scored the game-tying touchdown on a 16-yard rush. Brent Cimaglia then put Tennessee ahead for good with the ensuing extra point.
“Our kids kind of kept on fighting,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Our coaches done a really nice job, and our fan base — all the orange was there when the clock struck zero, that was there when the game started, and we can’t say enough about our fan support and what they mean to everybody associated with this organization.”
Gray earned the Gator Bowl MVP award, pacing the Vols with 86 yards on the ground and 34 receiving yards while also recovering the aforementioned onside kick.
“For me, being a Tennessee boy and being here at Tennessee, it’s been unbelievable,” Gray said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey. I fell in love with the place early. It’s something I dreamed about. It’s something I dreamed about as a kid, playing college football, playing in a bowl game. Being MVP has been amazing. I just want to say all glory to God.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano rebounced from a pair of interceptions earlier in the game to lead the Vols passing attack with 221 yards through the air.
True freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o led the defense with eight tackles and a pass breakup while junior defensive back Shawn Shamburger made his first-career interception and posted a sack.
A scoreless first quarter was highlighted by Shamburger’s interception. Offensively, Ramel Keyton had 60 receiving yards on a pair of catches.
UT opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia in the second quarter. The Vols drove 67 yards on 12 plays to go up 3-0 with 5:53 left in the first half.
Later in the quarter, Shamburger sacked IU’s Peyton Ramsey for a loss of 10 yards to force a punt. The sack set up a 14 play, 50-yard UT scoring drive, which was capped by a Cimaglia 32-yard field goal to put Tennessee ahead 6-0. Indiana ended the half with a 24-yard field goal to cut its deficit to 6-3 after intercepting Guarantano late in the second quarter.
After IU amassed just 69 total yards in the first half, the Hoosiers opened the second half with a 12 play, 69-yard touchdown drive to give them a 10-6 lead.
Ty Chandler returned the ensuing kickoff 47 yards to give the Vols great field position, but Jamar Johnson recorded a 63-yard pick-six to increase Indiana’s lead to 10. IU kicker Logan Justus missed the extra point, which would turn out to loom large later in the game.
True freshman Brian Maurer came in to play quarterback on the second drive of the third quarter and went 1-for-3 with 17 yards passing and eight yards on the ground to lead UT into field-goal range. Cimaglia connected on his third and final field goal of the game, a 43-yarder, to cut IU’s lead to seven.
Back-to-back field goals by Justus put the Hoosiers back ahead by 13 with 10:27 remaining in the game, but Tennessee would not be denied.
The Vols scored their first touchdown of game with 4:21 left in the fourth quarter on a Quavaris Crouch 1-yard plunge to cut the deficit to six. Guarantano and Jauan Jennings connected twice for 27 yards to set up the score. After the scoring drive, Paxton Brooks executed a perfect onside kick that was recovered by Gray at the 46-yard line. It marked the first time that the Vols had recovered an onside kick since Sept. 10, 2011 against Cincinnati.
“When they called it, we have it in the plan all week and we go through it in practice and execute it throughout the week,” Brooks said. “I felt confident in our ability to execute it in the game and the opportunity came.
“The coaches saw what they wanted to see in the formation that they lined up in, they called it and thankfully we got a lucky roll. The guys on the outside, credit to them; Eric and Nigel and all of the guys for getting their blocks and Eric for going and getting it. Credit to them.”
The recovery set up the Vols game-winning drive, which was capped by a 16-yard rushing touchdown by Gray to tie the game at 22. Cimaglia drilled the extra point to put the Vols up 23-22 with 3:51 remaining in the game.
The Vols defense stood tall with the game on the line, forcing a 51-yard field goal that missed wide right with 2:12 remaining, before holding the Hoosiers off one final time on their final possession when Ramsey’s pass attempt on fourth-and-10 fell incomplete.