Tennessee head coach Butch Jones commonly states that inches make the difference in a ballgame.
The phrase from the first-year head coach couldn't have been more accurate in the Vols' 14-10 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
With an opportunity to put the game away in the fourth quarter, the Volunteer offense faced a third-and-1 but was unable to move the chains as senior running back Rajion Neal was stuffed for a loss of three yards.
Then, with 46 seconds remaining on a fourth-and-inches, Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels took the snap from under center and pushed forward towards the first down marker.
After a measurement ruled that the Commodores came up just short, the Vols defense broke out in celebration, sprinting toward the sideline with what appeared to be a victory – a sight reminiscent of the Vols heart-breaking defeat to the LSU Tigers in 2010.
The replay official saw it differently, however, as the spot on the field was overturned, and the Commodores were awarded a first down to continue what would be their game-winning drive, capped off by freshman quarterback Patton Robinette's 5-yard touchdown run.
"I mean, at first, it did feel like we had the game, but we knew the defense just had to go back out there and try to make a play," said junior defensive back Justin Coleman about the play being overturned. "It came down to inches, and they won over their inches."
For senior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James, who watched from the sideline as everything transpired, the moment brought flashbacks of other gut-wrenching events that transpired throughout his career.
"We all looked at each other and said we were brought back to those games against LSU and North Carolina and we told everybody to calm down, calm down it might not be over yet," James said. "So, you know, the ball goes your way sometimes and sometimes it doesn't, but there were a lot more opportunities where we could have won the game besides that one play."
The overturned fourth down call wasn't the only critical play during Vanderbilt's 12 play, 92-yard game-winning drive.
A 15-yard facemask called on freshman defensive back Devaun Swafford, who also forced a fumble earlier in the second half, placed the Commodores inside Tennessee territory, and a 25-yard completion from Carta-Samuels to wide receiver Jordan Matthews helped Vandy secure its seventh win of the season.
"That was just 15 free yards for them, and any time you give up free yards to them like that, they're usually able to capitalize on it, so that means a lot," said senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood of Swafford's penalty.
Offensively, the Vols were unable to continually move the football due to the absence of the passing game.
Tennessee amassed 184 yards on the ground – Neal led the way with 95 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries – but freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs played his worst game as the starting signal caller for the Vols, as he finished the game 11-of-19 for 53 yards and two interceptions.
"We just were a little bit out of sync, and that's just something that we can just fix with routes on air and timing," Dobbs said.
With the defeat, the Vols will not be bowl eligible for a third consecutive season, but Dobbs said he still feels the program took another step in the right direction.
"We're extremely excited about the future, especially behind coach Jones," Dobbs said. "We just have to keep moving forward and continue to grow."