ATHENS, Ga. — The Hail Mary between The Hedges was the sort of play Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs had only dreamed about before it became a reality.
“Georgia had about four guys there to defend it, and my job was to give him a chance,” Dobbs said. “It was such a crazy play … and to be involved with it was amazing.”
Sophomore receiver Jauan Jennings was on the other end of “amazing” for the second consecutive week, this time skying high above the four red jerseys that surrounded him in the end zone to pull down Dobbs’ spiral that traveled 55 yards through the air.
The touchdown lifted the Vols to a 34-31 victory and put the cap on one of college football’s most miraculous final minutes of play this season, the Bulldogs having scored on a 47-yard touchdown only 10 seconds before.
For Jennings, reputed to be the most competitive player on the team according to teammates, the only catch in his career that ranked above his miraculous grab on Saturday occurred in the 38-28 win over Florida the prior week.
“I’d say it was two behind burning (Jalen) Tabor,” Jennings said, indicating his go-ahead 67-yard TD catch against Florida’s trash-talking cornerback still topped his personal highlight reel.
Dobbs, who grew up an hour away from Sanford Stadium in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, sits at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Tabor, mechanical and almost robotic in media dealings.
Indeed, while Tabor and other Gators were predicting a 12th straight win over Tennessee in the offseason, Dobbs refused to acknowledge anything beyond the first game on the schedule, explaining that talk would only take time away from preparation.
It has indeed taken all Dobbs can muster, running and throwing, for him to lead the Vols to their first 5-0 start since the program’s 1998 national championship season.
Tennessee’s storied title team featuring Al Wilson, Peerless Price and Tee Martin had a perfect 13-0 record, but like Dobbs’ Vols, they were anything but perfect and required their fair share of good fortune.
Phillip Fulmer’s title team benefitted from a controversial pass interference penalty in its season-opening win at Syracuse, a faulty Florida kicker in its overtime win over the Gators and a stumbling, fumbling Arkansas quarterback, to name a few.
The story of the 2016 Vols has been one of comebacks, four in five games to be precise, and after trailing by double digits in each one.
Georgia jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held a 24-14 advantage entering the fourth quarter before the crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
“In the third, fourth quarter maybe, the Georgia O-line thought they had it in the bag, they came out saying, ‘we got this in the bag,’” All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett said. “I was thinking there’s still time on the clock. It was more enjoyable because they thought they had it, and we took it.”
The Vols took their first lead of the game when Barnett and his defensive linemates collapsed the pocked on Bulldogs freshman QB Jacob Eason, forcing a fumble that Corey Vereen fell on to give Tennessee a 28-24 lead with 2:56 remaining.
But Eason, the No. 2-ranked QB in the 2016 signing class, proved resilient in his own right, following up on his costly fumble with a 4-play, 81-yard drive capped by his 47-yard TD pass to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds remaining.
The party was on at Sanford Stadium, Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band playing wildly as Bulldogs players celebrated. A penalty flag was thrown into the air, a 15-yard infraction for excessive celebration that would prove costly.
“You hate to learn a lesson like that,” first-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s disappointing.”
The Vols had their disappointments in the game, too, when running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd lost fumbles in the first half that gave Georgia points and took Tennessee points off the board.
That’s where Dobbs’ steady leadership and ability to put the team on his shoulders factored in.
It was Dobbs who broke tackles on a 17-yard run when the Vols faced third-and-15 at the Georgia 25 when trailing 17-0 late in the first half, setting himself up for a spectacular 4-yard touchdown run (and leap) three plays later.
“Josh is amazing, he’s what you want in the huddle,” UT senior center Dylan Wiesman said. “A guy that’s a leader that can make things happen, and that’s what Josh is.”
Still, Tennessee needed more than any one player was capable of producing against a desperate Georgia team in the raucous environment.
Coach Butch Jones had an idea the Bulldogs might short-kick to Evan Berry after the Eason touchdown pass.
“That’s a kickoff return that we put in at the end of the game,” Jones said of Berry’s return to the Georgia 48, which refs padded with another 5 yards on account of the Bulldogs being offside.
“We’ve had it for three years and never used it,” Jones said. “Give them credit. We rep it every Thursday and we were able to get it, and it put us in midfield or in range where you can get a Hail Mary.”
To the casual observer, Tennessee’s last-second win was a matter of luck, and while there was indeed some good fortune involved, the players explained it was also much more.
“We have the most competitive team in the nation, I feel like,” said Dobbs, 16-of-26 passing for 230 yards with 3 TD passes and an interception along with his 26 yards rushing and scoring run.
“We find ways to win, fight it out — adversity has been thrown our way each and every game. There’s no quit from this team. Everyone is motivated and everyone is hungry and that’s the type of attitude you have to have to be successful.”
The Tennessee turnaround is indeed in full swing, the Vols having snapped their 11-game losing streak to Florida along with a 23-game road losing streak to ranked opponents.
Slow starts continue to plague the team — the Vols have been outscored 41-10 in the first quarters — but the fourth-quarter fades of a season ago have become rousing comebacks.
“I think you’re just starting to see Coach Jones’ program come to light, it’s everything we’ve worked for these past three or four years we’ve been together,” Wiesman said of his fourth-year head coach. “Things are finally starting to fall together as to what this program is all about.”