‘This staff is totally different’: Vols, followers searching for extra after lastly slaying Gators

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The roar of the Neyland Stadium crowd was nonetheless ringing in Tennessee coach Josh Heupel’s ears when he lastly bought house late Saturday night time.

“And that is a very good factor,” Heupel advised ESPN. “There’s all the time the following recreation, however a scene like that’s one thing you do not need to overlook. I’ve by no means seen something prefer it.”

He hopes to see much more prefer it, as does a all of a sudden recharged Tennessee fan base that’s basking in Saturday’s 38-33 win over Florida, a recreation that, in typical vogue for this collection, went right down to the very finish.

It was additionally a recreation, not less than within the eyes of long-suffering Tennessee followers, that regarded all too acquainted in these last frantic minutes. Florida clawed again from a 38-21 deficit halfway by way of the fourth quarter, and after recovering an onside kick, the Gators had one last heave by quarterback Anthony Richardson from the Tennessee 39-yard line to win it.

Tennessee defensive finish Byron Younger hit Richardson as he launched the go, and cornerback Kamal Hadden had a straightforward interception on the 6-yard line to seal the sport.

Solely then may Heupel or anyone sporting Tennessee’s shade of orange (Pantone 151) exhale.

“It is like a punch-drunk fighter. You are simply ready for that subsequent blow to return,” mentioned Tennessee fan Rusty Rathburn, who made the journey from Portage, Michigan, together with sons Luke and Max to see his alma mater accomplish one thing it has completed solely twice previously 18 years — beat Florida.

“We have had a lot distress in opposition to these guys. You are ready for us to screw it up. However this staff is totally different.”

Equally, Heupel spent all week hammering house to his gamers that this was a distinct staff, totally different recreation, totally different yr. And, but, he was additionally keenly conscious of how deeply the scars run among the many Massive Orange trustworthy in relation to the Gators, who had dominated this rivalry again to the peak of Phillip Fulmer’s profitable tenure at Tennessee, when even a few of his most gifted groups did not have a solution for outdated nemesis Steve Spurrier.

So, sure, Heupel soaked up the second together with his gamers and the followers, most of whom remained within the stands coated in orange-and-white checkerboard for almost 20 minutes after the sport.

“I really like the pleasure and the fervour of our fan base, and I can promise you that our gamers really feel each little bit of it,” Heupel mentioned.

Certainly, Neyland Stadium was electrical, bursting on the seams, because the Pleasure of the Southland marching band performed “Rocky Prime” loud sufficient and lengthy sufficient for it seemingly to be heard in each nook of the state, from Mohawk to Union Metropolis and all factors in between.

It is true this was hardly the very best Florida staff that Tennessee has confronted over time. In any case, the Vols had been 10½-point favorites, probably the most they have been favored within the collection because the Seventies. Billy Napier is in his first season as Florida’s coach, and the Gators have some large holes to fill on their roster.

Nonetheless, it was Florida, and as Spurrier himself put it final week, “It simply looks like an entire lot of excellent issues all the time occur to the Gators on this recreation and an entire lot of unhealthy issues occur to the Vols.”

So who may blame the Massive Orange Nation for partying prefer it was 1998, the yr of the Vols’ final nationwide championship? The social gathering may proceed for some time with Tennessee having a bye week this Saturday.

“It is surreal, to have the ability to come right here and actually simply expertise this and see the way it’s all modified from after I first bought right here till what it’s now,” junior defensive sort out Omari Thomas mentioned. “It is one thing we need to hold constructing on, and actually, get it higher and higher every week.”

Saturday’s postgame scene shall be arduous to match.

Former gamers from 5 totally different a long time flocked to Heupel to hug him. They hugged present gamers, and so they hugged one another. Heath Shuler was there. So had been Al Wilson, Josh Dobbs, two generations of Colquitts (Craig and Britton) in addition to Jabari Davis and Fred White, who weren’t bashful about lighting up victory cigars.

Arian Foster, a four-time Professional Bowler, was again at Neyland for the primary time since he performed his last recreation at Tennessee in the course of the 2008 season.

“I can promise you that I shall be again,” mentioned Foster, who led the NFL in 2010 with 1,616 yards speeding.

Tony Vitello, Tennessee’s fiery baseball coach, had completed his half to fireside up the gang earlier than the sport, and he was a buzz noticed afterward. Earlier within the week, he mentioned his largest purpose was to not get arrested.

It seems he achieved that purpose and did not chest-bump any officers (or umpires), both. Vitello even joked on the set of ESPN’s School GameDay earlier than the sport that “if we win, all people may go streaking.”

It was that form of day on Rocky Prime, a breakthrough of types for a soccer program that has wallowed round in a gator-infested wasteland for a lot of the previous twenty years. Getting into Saturday’s recreation, the Vols had extra coaches (six) than that they had wins over the Gators (5) within the earlier three a long time.

Wilson, who was inducted into the School Soccer Corridor of Fame final yr, speaks for your entire Tennessee fan base when he says he nonetheless feels the ache of these Florida losses going all the way in which again to the Nineties.

“I misplaced 5 video games my entire faculty profession, and three of them had been to Florida. I imply, come on. We had been sick of dropping to them and sick of listening to about the whole lot that Spurrier mentioned,” mentioned Wilson, the center and soul of Tennessee’s 1998 nationwide championship staff.

Earl Brown and his spouse, Judy, are among the most devoted Tennessee followers on the planet. Earl has been to 320 Tennessee soccer video games in a row with out lacking one, a streak that goes again to 1996.

“There’s pleasure and reduction,” Brown mentioned. “There have been lots of years in there that we had been the higher staff and did not win. I believe that is the one which will get us again by way of that door of attending to the place all of us need to be once more.”

The Vols (4-0) have not received greater than eight video games within the common season since 2007, Fulmer’s next-to-last season.

Stephen Crutchfield hasn’t missed a Tennessee SEC recreation since 2007. He lives three blocks from Neyland Stadium within the Fort Sanders space simply off campus. He mentioned one of many causes he moved there was to be nearer to the Vols’ soccer cathedral.

“On the finish of the day, individuals simply need to win, and it does not matter if it is a defensive battle or the way in which we play now with lots of offense,” Crutchfield mentioned. “Folks do not need to hear that you just’re constructing something or that you just’re getting higher or that you are a class away. They simply need to win, which makes a [win] like this so vital.”

That is why Rathburn, who graduated from Tennessee in 1987, did not thoughts making the eight-hour drive and a big monetary funding to be in Knoxville on Saturday. He paid $1,375 for 3 tickets within the higher deck and forked over $700 per night time for a resort room.

“This ranks up there with the ’98 Florida recreation with how loopy the place was,” Rathburn mentioned. “I do not keep in mind it a lot louder. The Tennessee followers had been hungry for this. There’s hope now, the form of hope we have not had shortly. It is superb what Heupel has completed in lower than two years.”

Heupel’s demeanor is about as regular because it will get, and that steadiness has endeared him to his gamers. Tennessee fired earlier coach Jeremy Pruitt after an inside investigation uncovered 18 Degree 1 violations for impermissible recruiting advantages. Even with that NCAA cloud hovering, Heupel has steered the Vols to the No. 8 spot within the newest AP ballot, their highest rating since 2006.

“The blokes play arduous for Josh as a result of he coaches unafraid,” mentioned Scott Altizer, who returned as director of soccer relations final yr after working for 20 years on Tennessee’s soccer employees starting in 1994. “He preaches letting all of it hang around and going out and having enjoyable.”

Casey Clausen, the one Vols quarterback to have overwhelmed Florida twice in his profession (2001 and 2003), sees a model of Tennessee that he hasn’t seen shortly, a model that falls according to Heupel’s go-for-broke, warp-speed offense.

“There is a juice that is again in this system, and for the youthful era of gamers, they do not essentially know concerning the previous with Florida or anyone else, nor do they care or ought to they care,” mentioned Clausen, who lives in California and nonetheless follows the Vols carefully.

“Coach Heupel appears to have it again to, ‘It is our staff versus their staff,’ and all the opposite noise does not matter. You see that in the way in which this staff performs, even when it does not play its finest soccer.

“The opposite factor is that he isn’t taking part in with among the similar 4- and 5-star gamers lots of the opposite SEC groups have, however he’ll get there. You take a look at that offense and the way enjoyable it’s to play in it, and why would not a big-time ability participant need to come and play in that offense?”

This was a large recruiting weekend for the Vols, as among the prime prospects on their board had been on the town.

Heupel made certain to follow what he preaches late Saturday night time. A number of of the previous gamers, together with Foster, had been within the locker room after the sport. And though no person would say for certain, in the midst of that circle of 125 gamers dancing, Heupel might need been exhibiting off a couple of strikes of his personal.

“If you cannot have enjoyable in that atmosphere, you’ll be able to’t have enjoyable wherever,” mentioned Heupel, who showcased his finest vertical leap since his Oklahoma taking part in days and bought in a couple of Tiger Woods-sized fist pumps after Jaylen Wright‘s 5-yard landing run gave his staff a 38-21 lead halfway by way of the fourth quarter.

Heupel usually has a big contingent of household on the town for house video games, and by the point he bought house Saturday night time after assembly with recruits and doing his TV present, he switched roles from coach to uncle with a number of nieces and nephews working round the home.

Lastly, on the finish of the night time, he bought to spend some quiet time together with his spouse, Daybreak.

“Everyone had gone to mattress, and we simply checked out one another and mentioned, ‘What a fantastic day,'” Heupel mentioned. “It was an enormous second for us as we proceed to construct this program and the way a lot the gamers have invested. It is actually lots of enjoyable once you’re part of the climb.”

However, as Heupel is fast to level out, the Vols are nonetheless within the early phases of that climb. After an open date, they play LSU on Oct. 8 and Alabama on Oct. 15, dealing with two of the previous three nationwide champions. That is to not point out a recreation with No. 7 Kentucky on Oct. 29 and a visit to defending nationwide champion Georgia on Nov. 5. The win over Florida was solely the fifth Tennessee victory over Alabama, Florida or Georgia because the begin of Fulmer’s last season in 2008, making the Vols 5-38 in opposition to these groups in that span.

That is why Heupel was proper again on the soccer advanced at 7:30 Sunday morning assembly with recruits.

“There’s all the time one other large recreation, one other take a look at proper across the nook,” he mentioned.

And whereas the Vols have extra factors by way of 4 video games (194) than any Tennessee staff since 1915 (202), Heupel is not about to get forward of himself. The Vols made the sorts of errors of their first two video games in opposition to nationally ranked opponents (Pittsburgh and Florida) that normally end in defeat — blocked punts, fumbled punts, fumbles within the purple zone and never recovering onside kicks.

What’s extra, Tennessee has struggled mightily in opposition to the go on protection, each in attending to the quarterback and particularly at overlaying receivers. The Vols are additionally precariously skinny at some key positions, together with the offensive line and defensive secondary.

“There are such a lot of issues we are able to do rather a lot higher and should do higher as we go ahead, however I am going again to the resiliency of our gamers,” Heupel mentioned. “Clearly, we did not end that recreation the way in which we would have liked to, and you may sense that from the gang slightly bit when [Florida] bought the onside kick. However what I really like about our group is that they simply hold taking part in.”

One of many Heupels’ traditions after video games is gathering all of the members of the family on the town for an image on the sector.

Heupel and his spouse had been trying by way of these footage collectively late Saturday night time.

“We’re all standing there collectively and the stadium continues to be checkerboarded behind us, and that is nonetheless most likely 20 minutes after the sport had ended,” he mentioned. “That is going to be a cool background to that image for us.”

Come December, Heupel would not thoughts having a couple of extra footage like that to admire.

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