How 16 seconds at Kentucky showed who Josh Heupel is as the Tennessee football coach

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson sat next to the Tennessee football sideline after failing to catch a fourth-down pass Saturday.

Josh Heupel stood a few yards away. The Vols coach marched onto the field and into the offensive huddle. With 16 seconds before halftime, Tennessee had one timeout and the ball at its 39 in a 21-21 game.

Heupel had a plan.

“I love coach’s mentality,” wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. said. “He is going to go for it. He is going to fight. That is all you can ask for, a coach that is going to fight.”

Heupel flexed a blend of logic and moxie in the moments before halftime of Tennessee’s 45-42 win at No. 17 Kentucky. Heupel didn’t send in Hendon Hooker to kneel down. He sent the Vols offense onto the field to score.

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Tennessee (5-4, 3-3 SEC) had scored with 1:14 remaining in the second quarter to tie the game. Kentucky (6-3, 4-3) got into UT territory before the Vols broke up consecutive passes, forcing the failed fourth-down attempt to get the ball back.

“The style of the game mattered, as far as the aggressiveness,” Heupel said. “Them receiving the opening kick in the second half was a part of that as well, (the) decision-making.”

Hooker dropped back and connected with Cedric Tillman for an 8-yard gain to the Tennessee 47. The Vols wide receiver ducked out bounds, stopping the clock with 10 seconds to play.

“You’re able to pick something up, some positive yards on first down,” Heupel said. “It gives you an opportunity, based on time, to maybe get a couple more plays to get into field goal range. Something not positive happens on the first play, then you’re able to end the half right there.”

Hooker again hit Tillman on the second play. The Vols gained 13 yards as Tillman ran out of bounds at the Kentucky 40. UT had five seconds before halftime. 

“I think you have to kick a field goal here,” ESPN color commentator Kirk Morrison said on the broadcast. “Not enough time probably to run another play.”

Heupel thought otherwise. The Vols lined up in the same formation as the previous play with Jones and Tillman stacked to Hooker’s right.

The Vols quarterback looked for Jones first, but quickly pivoted to Tillman. He fired the ball to the junior, who reeled it in as he tumbled to the sideline for a 14-yard gain. Jones and Tillman high-fived as they walked back to the sideline.

“Coach Heup puts all the confidence in us,” said Hooker, who threw for a career-high 316 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. “Us going out there and playing hard for him isn’t too hard. Just going out there and being efficient, playing smart and the style of ball that we knew we can play helped us on that drive. Hats off to my linemen for giving me great time in the pocket and the receivers for being decisive in their routes.”

Tennessee had two seconds on the clock and was well within range for kicker Chase McGrath, whose longest field goal this season is 48 yards. McGrath trotted on the field and snuck a 43-yard field goal between the uprights. 

Tennessee still had the timeout it had at the start of the drive. It didn’t need it. The Vols covered 35 yards in 14 seconds to set up the field goal and take a 24-21 lead into halftime. 

Heupel had a plan. It worked and it showed how he's going to coach the Vols.

“We knew that we were going to get points up on the board,” Jones said. “Everybody had to follow through with the details like that. Everybody had to be on point. That is what happened. We came up with a field goal and that was a huge part of that game. 

“I love coach’s aggressiveness.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.