KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At 12:06 a.m. EST on Sunday morning, Hendon Hooker sat on the 35-yard-line inside Neyland Stadium. If he had tilted his head up, he would have seen 102,455 pairs of eyes looking back at him, glued in the hope that he was okay.
“Get up, Hendo!” one person implored from the sideline. Tennessee’s student section echoed the response, as chants of “Hendon Hooker!” and “Let’s go Hendon!” rang out across Shields-Watkins Field.
But Hooker did not get up — at least, not on his own.
Instead, after absorbing a hit from the back while trying to guide Tennessee to a miracle, Hooker limped to the sideline, unable to put weight on a bent right leg.
As Hooker was helped off, the Vols’ trainers moved him toward the sideline — toward the fans. That may not have been the wisest move given what transpired before and after Hooker’s injury, as people around the stadium pelted the field with objects in response to a ball spot that all but ended the Vols’ chances against No. 13 Ole Miss (even though the littering could have easily ended it, too).
Hooker’s exit brought Joe Milton onto the field, and after a completion to Walker Merrill, it looked like Milton might pull a Jalen Hurts via the starter-turned-backup returning to save the day.
But after Milton’s third-down pass sailed over Cedric Tillman in the end zone and with the Vols needing a touchdown, the Michigan transfer sprinted 13 yards before politely ducking out of bounds on the game’s final play.
In total, those three moments — the call being upheld, Hooker getting hurt and Milton ending the game on the Ole Miss sideline — took 30 minutes, 20 of them spent waiting on fans to stop exorcising their frustrations.
And on a tumultuous night brimming with optimism and expectation, it is those three moments that will conjoin to form the nastiest aftertaste from Tennessee’s 31-26 loss to the Rebels.
So let’s dig into each of those moments, shall we?
Moment 1: Fans’ revolt sours incredible showing
With 54 seconds remaining and the Vols trailing by five, Hooker fired a pass to Jacob Warren on 4th-and-24. Warren caught the pass, but he was ruled a yard short — a call upheld after review.
In response, Tennessee fans chunked objects — bottles, shakers, even a golf ball that Lane Kiffin held for the camera after the game — onto the grass at Shields-Watkins Field.
The stadium announcer responded by asking fans to kindly refrain from throwing things, even threatening the risk of forfeit — and he was met with boos.
And then fans kept throwing more items, anyway.
Overall, the delay lasted 20 very unnecessary minutes. Tennessee’s dance team and cheerleaders left the field out of caution, and for good reason. I have a colleague that suffered a gashed nose from a water bottle cap that flew a little too close.
During the delay, Lane Kiffin and Josh Heupel met to discuss whether to continue playing. They agreed on continuing, and players stretched on the field to keep loose.
Still, several Ole Miss players — who moved onto the field and out of the line of fire — used their calisthenics to motion toward the Vols’ fan base, egging them toward a forfeit that never came.
The worst part, obviously, wasn’t the fourth-down spot, or the threat of a loss that happened, anyway.
Instead, it’s that Tennessee’s fans — however small the object-tossing margin may have been, according to Josh Heupel — behaved their worst after showing their absolute best for most of the night.
Checker Neyland, the light show, and fans’ constant buzz and electricity all came together to form an environment that emulated everything we love about college football — in one of the sport’s most heralded cathedrals, no less.
The intimidation, the swagger, the wall of noise — all of it kept Neyland Stadium rocking, with each big play sending the sold-out crowd into hysterics.
And then came those embarrassing 20 minutes, with fans tossing water bottles toward Kiffin afterward, too, as he batted one to the ground going into the tunnel.
“First, I want to acknowledge — for the few fans, what transpired at the end — disappointed in the way the game ended,” Josh Heupel said. “I know that’s very few of our members. For the most part of the game, man, what an atmosphere. Phenomenal to watch and be a part of.”
Overall, the effect leaves that first sour note from this game, and it should undoubtedly result in some action from the SEC. It certainly didn’t make Greg Sankey, Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman or Vols Athletic Director Danny White happy on Saturday, as each issued a statement.
But the atmosphere for the first three quarters, pregame, and even the Vol Walk should not be forgotten, either, despite the detestability at the end. Those displays are what make Tennessee great, and they leave Heupel excited for what’s to come.
“It’s why I wanted to be here,” he said of the crowd. “I believe in the Power of the T…. I believe in this fan base, man.”
Moment 2: Hooker’s injury — how devastating is it?
Speaking of this new era, the first season of the Heup train appeared on a positive uptick on both sides of the ball Saturday.
Jabari Small ran well in Tiyon Evans’ absence, while Velus Jones Jr. and Cedric Tillman came up strong where JaVonta Payton fell short on offense.
On defense, Trevon Flowers intercepted Heisman candidate Matt Corral for Corral’s first pick this season, the Vols stayed in Corral’s face to force him to make plays (except he did for 426 yards of total offense), and Tim Banks’ unit came through to force a late three-and-out before Velus Jones took an electrifying punt return to the UT 47.
And then all that work crashed and burned when Hooker went down.
In his time as Tennessee’s quarterback, Hooker has grown exponentially and exceptionally — a trend that remained true against Ole Miss.
After a disastrous start that featured -17 yards rushing in the first half, Hooker responded in determined, deadly fashion to lead the Vols back in the final two frames.
He finished with 137 rushing yards, went 17-for-26 for 233 yards and one touchdown through the air, and his leadership and effect were evident all night — even in solitude on the sideline.
Following the debris-sparking decision that gave Ole Miss the ball back, Hooker stared directly at the jubilant Rebels as “Hotty Toddy” rang out across the stadium.
Seeing his morose nature, Tennessee’s offensive linemen came over to console and encourage their quarterback.
Though Tennessee will try, that type of leader and talent can’t be replaced. Not with the Vols’ current choices in Milton and Harrison Bailey.
So, UT’s only hope is that Hooker’s injury is minor. Well, his and the litany of other bang-ups — including a major blow via offensive linemen Cade and Cooper Mays — suffered in a game that lasted four hours and 33 minutes.
If not, then Saturday’s final unthinkable moment could snowball into something much worse in the coming weeks.
Moment 3: Milton’s non-throw sets dangerous precedent for more
In total, this night was full of several crazy, impactful moments inside Neyland Stadium.
Perhaps the most absurd, though, was the final play.
Rather than send a prayer to the end zone, Milton proved the only one in orange to follow the stadium announcer’s previous direction to stop throwing things.
He tucked and ran to the sideline for 13 meaningless yards when the Vols needed a touchdown, and the absence of mind shows a glimpse of how rough things might get at Alabama and onward if Hooker isn’t healthy.
“I think everybody here would say the same thing,” Heupel said when asked about the decision to run for it. “You want to put the ball in the end zone.”
Forget Milton’s talent for a moment, though that’s been of great question, too. Instead, simply consider the difference in leadership from Hooker to Milton.
Suddenly, Tennessee has slid from Hooker’s poise and progress to Milton’s…. whatever you call it.
And this time, there’s no choice in the QB matter unless Heupel decides to call on Bailey — which seems as likely as UT fans picking up the trash they decided to throw toward Ole Miss.
Suddenly, what looked to be a sure 6-6 season or even more feels like a gamble that might win a lot of money in Vegas — especially with another weighted matchup against the Crimson Tide set for next week.
Granted, you have to like this team’s response, even in defeat.
Tennessee could have given up when Ole Miss got the ball back. It didn’t.
Tennessee could have folded after Hooker got hurt, or when faced with countless other injuries. It didn’t.
“We were probably the thinnest football team in America when we started,” Heupel summarized. “But man, the fight and competitive spirit in our locker room… we’re growing and developing in the right way.”
Over time, that result could form something really special — even with the grotesque moments that were and the ones still to come.
If and when that result happens, Tennessee fans won’t “miss Kiffin,” as Ole Miss’ crowd suggested.
Instead, they’ll gaze at the visor he flung into the air after swatting away a water bottle early Sunday morning.
And then, those same fans who became the ultimate story this weekend will put down the visor of what could have been, throw the trash in its proper receptacle instead of toward another human being, and focus their energy on what’s here and now instead of a coach that’s been gone more than a decade.
Hopefully then they’ll notice the difference in this team, and that any debris-littered detraction from this rebuild only puts the Vols further from goals that seem more attainable under Heupel than they could or would have been with more time under Kiffin.