The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tennessee, TCU and Utah came back to win, and all that’s left are the tears

Utah fans celebrate on the field following Saturday's victory over comeback victory over USC. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Another deranged American Saturday waned, and a tight end wept. The joy swelled on the field near him, and the tight end wept. The East had gone to bed except maybe in Knoxville, Tenn., and euphoric nuts stormed the field black-and-red in Salt Lake City, hours after euphoric nuts had stormed the field into a vast bedlam of orange in Knoxville, which came moments after euphoric nuts had stormed the field purple in Fort Worth. And so a giant Utah tight end who caught 16 passes for 234 yards in a 43-42 game the Utes dedicated to two departed teammates went ahead and did the only thing left to do.

He wept, and he stood for another entire, bent day.

As big No. 86, Dalton Kincaid, wept briefly for all and the TV cameras to see, he reminded how life improves when 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight ends find the weeping too much to stem. He reminded how previous generations might have been too frail to weep, too fearful of the potential appraisal of others. Most of all, he reminded how in this kookiest concoction of a sport, a sport relentless in the senseless, some Saturdays tear through all the emotions, all the way from the 43-40 in Fort Worth through the 52-49 in Knoxville to the 43-42 in Salt Lake City, until the only choice left is the happy weeping.

“You could see the swarm of orange coming down,” second-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel had said 1,500 miles east-southeast, having just coached a mad, mad, mad, mad victory over No. 3 Alabama that upheld one of the weirdest tenets of a sport stuffed with them. In a sport of kingdoms that beat their neighbors habitually, sometimes, just sometimes, there’s value in having lost 15 straight times to a neighbor you detest as Tennessee had to Alabama. Sometimes, just maybe sometimes, there’s even a hint of value in having gone outscored a harrowing 589-201 in those 15 annual alleged games with their hollowed second halves.

Tennessee takes down Alabama (college football winners and losers)

Sometimes, there comes that day when the depths of the dejection seem to fuel the heights of the reprieve, as if the heights might sag without the depths.

It happened in Ann Arbor, Mich., last November, when Michigan finally took a brute solution to its Ohio State problem after going 2-17 through the dour new century. It happened in Lawrence, Kan., in 2005 when Kansas finally stemmed the 36 straight losses to Nebraska, and in Gainesville, Fla., in 2018 when Kentucky finally stopped 31 straight losses to Florida, and in Philadelphia in 2015 when Temple finally halted 31 straight losses to Penn State (hooray for Matt Rhule), and in Charlottesville in 1990 when Virginia improved to 1-29 against Clemson (hooray for Shawn Moore and Herman Moore and the late George Welsh).

Even a rare win without a gigantic streak will do it, as in Oxford Square in early October 2014 when Mississippi finally solved Alabama, as it does only every so often.

Now it came to that forgotten old bygone powerhouse Tennessee (6-0), in a year too breakthrough to believe and a 52-49 game too chockablock to comprehend even if comprehending is precisely what they will do for decades onward. Now the goal post chunks left the stadium to romp around town to the Tennessee River and other whereabouts, even if they did not get up and do this themselves. Now a guy who just turned 21 three weeks ago and who caught 207 yards and five touchdowns worth of passes with huge play after huge play, Jalin Hyatt, speaks for for long-starved Volunteers fans when he says, “This is what we needed.”

How did you know?

The Alabama kingdom committed 17 penalties and other, less common blunders. The Alabama kingdom showed its otherworldly composure in rebounding from a 28-10 deficit in front of 101,915 mostly hostile. The Alabama kingdom displayed another great king, quarterback Bryce Young, a player of astonishing skill and smarts. And the Alabama kingdom finally got some turnovers after halftime — the first interception of the entire season from the soaring Hendon Hooker and a daffy little 11-yard scoop-and-score that provided a 49-42 lead with 7:49 left.

Yet Alabama couldn’t manage the last-minute clock in a 49-49 tie, and a long field goal strayed right, and Hooker threw 18 yards to Ramel Keyton and 27 yards to Bru McCoy, and two seconds remained, and Chase McGrath’s 40-yard field goal whirred through sideways, and Tennessee had mastered the key sports art of forgetting. It had epitomized a method the coach and players kept bringing up for when things go wrong, maybe even a method we all can deploy in life: “Wipe the play.”

Do it.

Wipe the play.

If you can’t wipe the past 15 years, maybe you can lend them some meaning in one season of fresh awakening, with the traditional walk to the stadium itself “unlike anything I could have ever imagined,” as Heupel said, “the sea when I turned left with my kids was, I mean, so deep.” Maybe you can make the wretched 15 almost worthwhile — almost! — with one night you will never forget, with further good days coming, with anticipation throbbing for Nov. 5 and a visit to No. 1 Georgia, all of it so alive just as the goal posts were beginning to wobble and budge.

And surely across the mad country, at just about the time the goal posts start walking, there can be someone such as Max Duggan sitting at No. 13 TCU in Fort Worth saying: “I love this place. I love the school. I love the city. I love this program. And to be involved like that with a big win like that, get the fans in there [on the field], coaches are happy, players are happy, it’s a one-of-a-kind feeling.”

And it goes to show that sometimes out there, after staying in one place for four lightly noticed seasons, after the 973 passes and the 588 completions and the 57 touchdowns and the 21 interceptions, there’s a day out there. There’s a TCU unbeaten but down 30-16 against No. 8 Oklahoma State, and there come drives of 47 and 94 yards with no third downs in either drive, and there come two overtimes and a 43-40 win on Kendre Miller’s closing two-yard scoring burst after six tidy plays without a third down there, either.

And then, as if the brain hasn’t gone bogged down enough while barely even considering how Syracuse is 6-0 for the first time since 1987, there’s nightfall and this other thing going on in Utah, with the No. 20 Utes pipping No. 7 Southern California, 43-42, with 48 seconds left, with quarterback Cameron Rising navigating around bigger people to score the closing two-point conversion after also scoring the closing touchdown, his third rushing alongside two passing.

So the Lincoln Riley Trojans (6-1) finally lose, and the fans finally storm, and even the second-most-tenured coach in the country, measured old young man Kyle Whittingham, reckons it “has to go down as one of the most exciting games in Rice-Eccles Stadium history.” And at the end of all of it, the tight end tells reporters of his 16 catches, “It was pretty fun,” having finished his worthy weep that spoke for another whole damned Saturday.

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