If someone had told me this time last year that in the 2015 season I would be marking Neyland off my sports bucket list I definitely would have had my doubts. If you told me that same game I’d be working from the press box I probably would have called you crazy.
But as fate would have it, I marked off another college football venue off of my sports bucket list Saturday as a working member of the press representing The Herald-News.
While I must be fair in saying I’ve only worked in three other college press boxes, (Presbyterian College, Clemson and Vanderbilt) I must say that the folks over in Knoxville definitely do a top-notch job.
From the great pre-game and halftime meal, drinks and dessert spread to the hard working and helpful Media Relations and UT Athletic Department Staff, all in all, the Vols know how to take care of the media and make our jobs as easy as possible.
With it being my first time ever in Neyland and Knoxville in general, I really wanted to soak it all in and enjoy the experience. Visiting Neyland Stadium has always been near the very top of my list of places to visit as a sports fan. It is beyond humbling that my first time came with first class treatment as a sports reporter.
As a Clemson fan, it was also rather nice to visit another stadium north of Interstate-85 that appreciates and wears the orange and white proudly. It was pretty clear from the 102,136 that packed out the iconic stadium that Vols fans are true and dear to their team.
It would have been easy for attendance or stadium energy to be low following last week’s heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma on the same field. Not to mention the competition on the opposite sideline Saturday night wasn’t exactly your typical primetime opponent for the Vols.
Heck, it would have been easy for the Vols themselves to come out flat, lacking intensity and focus but both proved to be far from the case. Tennessee came out early and took control of the game and dominated all phases of the game from the opening kickoff.
Head Coach Butch Jones was pleased with the focus of his team coming off last week’s overtime thriller and avoiding the hangover.
“First of all, really, really proud of our players. I thought they had a workman-like approach, a professional mentality all week long,” Jones said. “It started in our week of preparation. I thought we had a very good week of preparation, so I was really, really proud of them and their approach all week long.”
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was impressive finishing the night 15-21 for 144 yards and two scores. Dobbs and the Vols capitalized on favorable field position throughout the night thanks to the dominance on defense and special teams.
The Vols made the Western Carolina Catamounts pay the price on special teams coverage returning a punt and kickoff to the house for a score Saturday night. Evan Berry made a draw dropping 88-yard kickoff return where he somehow managed to bounce out to the sidelines after being seemingly trapped in a circle of would-be tacklers around the Vols’ 40 yard-line.
It was quite a special moment for Berry who made the play with his elder brother and former Vol, Eric, in the stadium. “It was obviously amazing. He doesn’t come to many games; he got an opportunity to come because he had a Thursday night game.”
“I give my best every game, but knowing he was coming I just tried to make something happen and it happened. So it was a great feeling,” the younger Berry said following Saturday night’s game.
Running back Alvin Kamara also had a highlight-reel play returning a punt 50 yards for a touchdown that put the Vols up 48-3 in the third quarter. The Vols would eventually record a 55-10 victory.
All I know is that now that I have marked Neyland off of my list I can’t wait to come back. Further, I’m also itching to knock another stadium off of my list as soon as possible.
Sanford Stadium is also another bucket list stop for me and this weekend might be the best chance as ever to go. Georgia welcomes Southern University Saturday for a high-noon kickoff.
I’d imagine my chances of getting a ticket without breaking the bank will be much higher this week than the following weekend when Nick Saban and Alabama come rolling into town (see what I did there?) for a 3:30 P.M. showdown on CBS.
I throughly enjoyed my trip to Knoxville and would recommend it to any college football fan as a place to visit for a game. Neyland lived up to every bit of my expectations and was well worth the wait.