KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ian Simon cried.
Andrew Baggett was overwhelmed by the moment.
Dorial Green-Beckham jumped.
Jimmie Hunt lost track of time.
One by one, Missouri’s young playmakers made an impact in the team’s 51-48 victory over Tennessee on Saturday. And each one handled the weight of four overtimes in a different way.
Simon, for one, wasn’t even supposed to be there. When the game went to overtime, starting cornerback E.J. Gaines was knocked out of the game with an injury. Simon, a redshirt freshman safety, was thrown into the mix, forced to stand tall in front of 89,272 screaming fans.
On fourth and 3 in the fourth round of overtime, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray stood at Missouri’s 18-yard line with the game tied at 48. Bray took the snap and immediately looked to his right, where wide receiver Zach Rogers was running to the sideline.
He threw to Rogers, but before the ball arrived Simon tipped the ball with his fingers, diverting its course and forcing it to bounce off Rogers’ hands and to the turf.
Teammates mobbed Simon, batting him on the helmet and lifting him into the air. Tigers players cleared the north sideline, and suddenly he was lost in a sea of white and gray jerseys.
Simon stood there, with the game yet to be decided, and started to cry.
“I was definitely caught up in the moment. I just kind of broke down crying, didn’t know how to react,” Simon said after the game. “Our team fought so hard.”
On Missouri’s next possession, the offense ran the ball three times before setting up a 35-yard field goal. Redshirt freshman Baggett, who had made six extra points in the game, trotted onto the field, ready to attempt the first winning field goal of his career.
Not his first game-winner in college. His first one ever.
His approach to the kick, he said, is hard to put into words.
“Don’t worry about what’s going on, and just … go,” Baggett said, smiling and shaking his head after the game.
The kick sailed through the uprights, and Baggett’s offensive line turned to uproariously greet him. Offensive linemen Connor McGovern lifted Baggett into the air, his shoulders and helmet resting above a huddle containing Missouri’s entire team. Players from all sides batted at his helmet and jersey, and even after a few seconds of celebration, McGovern wouldn’t let him down.
For Baggett, the moment was a blur. It was joy, relief and exhaustion all in one.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. All the team got around me, and it was exciting,” Baggett said. “I think someone picked me up, but I can’t remember.”
A few minutes after the kick sailed through, freshman receiver Green-Beckham made a beeline for the smaller Missouri cheering section in the northwest lower deck inside Neyland Stadium. Green-Beckham, who had caught a touchdown at the end of regulation and another in overtime, dived into the crowd, embracing a group of golden-clad strangers.
He sat there among the crowd, as the fans around him yelled the same “D-G-B” chant that he heard when he first visited MU the previous spring.
He sat there, smiled and soaked it all in.
Talking with reporters after the game, Green-Beckham couldn’t quite explain why he made the leap into the seats. He saw them, draped in gold and before he knew it he was there.
“I was just showing our fans respect,” Green-Beckham said. “We got great fans, die-hard fans out there, so we just have to go out there and compete and make them proud.”
Standing in a narrow tunnel underneath the south end zone of Neyland Stadium about 45 minutes after the win, redshirt sophomore Jimmie Hunt couldn’t yet make sense of it all.
He described his kick return for a touchdown in the first quarter, recalling the way he had maneuvered around blocks and found a hole on the right side of the field.
He broke down his touchdown catch in the first possession of overtime, detailing how he caught the ball across the middle, sprinted into the left side of the end zone and raised both hands in celebration.
The game had been exhausting. It had been long. But how long, exactly? For a guy who had just made the two most memorable plays of his career, the events of the past four hours all rolled into one.
“It was exciting. It was three overtimes, I believe. It was four?” Hunt asked, after being corrected by a reporter. He looked shocked, trying and failing to replay the sequence of scores in his head. “Gol-ly. Four overtimes. We were happy we pulled it off, and it was a great experience.”
It was a great experience for Simon, Baggett, Green-Beckham and Hunt. Undoubtedly for their coach, too. Although his reaction seemed a bit different.
In the postgame press conference, coach Gary Pinkel sat at a podium, closing his eyes momentarily and putting his right hand on his forehead.
He looked worn, exhausted. Leaning forward, his opening statement summarized the common feelings of each of those four players after an SEC marathon in Knoxville.
"That was a long game, wasn't it?"