Eric Gordon couldn’t believe his eyes. The ball was coming toward the Tennessee nickelback — again.
Vanderbilt was running the same route, going to the same receiver and Gordon was once again in the way. This time, though, he just didn’t break up the pass. He picked it off.
The former Hillsboro High standout leaped in front of Vanderbilt’s Wesley Tate and snagged the ball. He kept his footing and sprinted 90 yards to the end zone, scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the Volunteers’ 27-21 victory on Saturday night in Knoxville.
“I wasn’t expecting [Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers] to throw it,” Gordon, a redshirt-sophomore, said. “Once I got it in my hands I was like, ‘This can’t be real right now. This can’t be real.’”
Plays like that only happen in dreams. Gordon knows this because he fantasized about just that kind of moment leading up to the showdown against his hometown team.
“That is a dream come true,” Gordon said. “When I was out there [Saturday], I think I had a little of déjà vu. I dreamed a lot of plays that happened in this game that actually came true. I can’t tell you exactly when I dreamed it. When you see it twice, it is kind of déjà vu.”
The play first unfolded before his eyes when he smacked away a pass from Rodgers midway through the fourth quarter. He then snagged his fourth career interception in overtime.
After he reached the end zone he was mobbed by his teammates, believing the game was over. The celebration had to wait a couple minutes as an official blew his whistle and ruled his knee went down at the 10-yard line.
A replay review overturned the call on the field as Gordon kept his balance after making the pick. Gordon never doubted that he had avoided hitting the ground.
“I was very confident,” Gordon said. “I was so confident that I looked down at my knee and it was pretty clean.”
The interception return for a touchdown was the first defensive touchdown in overtime of a Football Bowl Subdivision game in more than six years.
It also was easily the biggest play of Gordon’s young college career.
“Words can’t describe how I was feeling,” Gordon said. “It was my greatest moment at Neyland Stadium, period.”
Gordon was an all-state selection out of Hillsboro, where he was part of a Class 4A state championship team in 2008. He was named the Offensive MVP in the state title game and excelled as a two-way player, making more than 80 catches for more than 1,500 yards during his last two years of high school.
After redshirting in 2009, he made six starts last year on defense for Tennessee. He has started in just one game this season and the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder has recorded 16 tackles — five for a loss.
Playing in the nickel spot, Gordon seems to have found his niche.
“He’s got a good little burst on the ball,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s a little bit of a risk-taker. Sometimes he gives up some, but they’re not as big at the nickel spot as they are at corner.”
His latest gamble paid off on Saturday night and it kept Tennessee’s bowl hopes alive.
With a win at Kentucky in the regular-season finale this weekend, the Volunteers (5-6, 1-6 SEC) can become bowl eligible for the third straight year.
“That is exactly what everybody wants,” Gordon said. “That is what we have been thriving on this last month, to stick with it. Hopefully we can come out next week and get us a win to get to a bowl.”