KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee coach Butch Jones looked at senior kicker and punter Michael Palardy from across the salad bar earlier this week and asked him if he was going to kick the game-winning field goal Saturday. Jones had asked the question before every game this season, and Palardy had told him each time that he would.
With three seconds left in Saturday's game against No. 11 South Carolina, Palardy got his chance, and he booted his first career game-winner through the uprights. For Palardy, he was living out a moment he'd seen over and over in his head ever since Jones became Tennessee's coach in the spring.
"He tells me every day to visualize the game-winning kick because sooner or later it was going to come down to it, and sure enough he was right," Palardy said. "My focus is always on each kick being a game winner. When that moment comes, I always want to be ready. I need to know how I will respond."
Palardy said he was happy to come through in the clutch and redeem himself from his missed kick earlier in the game, but he credited the offense and defense for giving him the chance. Palardy, who hit three of his four kicks on the day, said he tried to escape his teammates' celebration after the kick, but he eventually just gave in and let them dogpile him on the field.
"I kind of stopped and fell to the ground. I was kind of in awe," Palardy said. "My first experience kicking a game winner was unbelievable. When I got dogpiled, I couldn't breathe for a little bit, but it was a great experience."
For Tennessee's other seniors, it meant everything to snap a 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents. Senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood, who had four tackles and two quarterback hurries, said it was "nice to get that one win that we'll be able to talk about forever."
Senior defensive end Marlon Walls said he couldn't contain his excitement after Palardy's kick went through the uprights, and that he even attempted a backflip after the game. For Walls, who finished with four tackles and 2.5 sacks, it was a moment signifying the program is turning around under Butch Jones.
"I was excited for my teammates," Walls said. "In that moment, you just put yourself aside and get excited for the person next to you. My immediate feeling is that we were finally over that hump. We knew it was coming with coach Jones, but it was exciting. Just the love for your teammates."
Walls said that he and his teammates had heard outsiders, including ESPN's College Gameday, talk about how the Volunteers couldn't compete with top competition, and that they wanted to send a message to the contrary Saturday.
"I was tired of people talking about us like that," Walls said. "I know how we work and how much time we put into this; we just had a couple of bad breaks. This feeling is amazing. I don't know what to say right now."
A senior who has played through many heartbreaking losses, including the overtime defeat to Georgia two weeks ago, defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said it felt good finally getting a big win Saturday. McCullers, who logged six tackles, half a sack and 2.5 tackles for losses, said beating the nation's No. 11 team shows that Tennessee isn't a pushover anymore.
"We can play with anybody," McCullers said. "If we play like we're supposed to play, we can play with anybody in the country."
Junior left tackle Tiny Richardson said the game came down to the Volunteers' belief in themselves and their determination to win the battle of inches, something their head coach stressed all week.
His quarterback, Justin Worley, said the offense was just trying to stay poised on the last drive of the game, even when the Volunteers were facing third and long from their own territory with less than three minutes left.
Worley said he didn't see the catch because he had been knocked down, but he praised Marquez North for hauling in the 39-yard pass on that drive. Worley and North's third and long hookup carried Tennessee into South Carolina territory and set Palardy up to kick the game-winning field goal six plays later.
As gratifying as the win was for Tennessee's players, they know the job isn't done. The Volunteers move to 4-3 on the season and 1-2 in the SEC, but McCuller said they should focus on replicating Saturday's success over the rest of the season.
"We're going to continue to work," McCullers said. "We have 'Bama next, so let's work hard this week in practice and get ready for them. We can take them."