Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: 35-31

35. 2001: #7 Tennessee 28 - Notre Dame 18 (South Bend, IN)
2001 might rank second behind 1998 as the most memorable individual season, as it simply seemed like the Vols played a big game every single week. For this list, both 1998 and 2001 have seven games in the Top 50, and you'll see 3 from '01 today. This one, the trip to South Bend, was coming on the heels of two hard fought SEC battles, and fans worried about a letdown. In ankle-deep grass on a November day in Indiana, it seemed like Touchdown Jesus was again smiling on the Vols early on. In the first quarter alone, Constantin Ritzmann recovered an Arnaz Battle fumble on the one yard line going in, and then Julian Battle converted a fumble on a great play and rumbled 81 yards for a defensive touchdown. That would be all the Vols could manage in the first half, taking a 7-3 lead into the locker room. 90 seconds into the second half, the Irish D struck back, tipping and intercepting a Clausen pass and racing it back to the house for a 10-7 lead. Notre Dame's defense also effectively ended the the dark horse Heisman campaign of Travis Stephens, holding the Vol senior to 63 yards on 24 carries. But Stephens' punch into the end zone in the third quarter gave Tennessee the lead back. With the Vols leading 21-10 in the 4th, Notre Dame scored and converted the two, and we had a ballgame. But Casey Clausen refused to be denied, and led a gritty drive downfield, capping it off himself with a John Elway-esque dive for the score. On Notre Dame's ensuing drive, John Henderson got a hand on the football and Dominique Stevenson was there to intercept and secure the victory, 28-18. It was Tennessee's 4th victory over the Irish, in a series that today stands tied at 4 apiece.

34. 1999: #6 Tennessee 37 - #10 Georgia 20 (Knoxville, TN)
Here we go again: Georgia is undefeated, people are talking, this is there year, and Tennessee is in their way. The Vols had lost to Florida but had rebounded well in a shutout over Auburn, but Georgia was not Auburn. This one had all the makings of a classic...right up until kickoff. Then the Vols got nasty. The offense shared the wealth, with everyone making big play after big play. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Vols had opened a 30-7 lead on Georgia, behind touchdowns from Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, and Cedrick Wilson. The defense made life miserable on Quincy Carter, sacking him six times and cutting the life out of the Georgia offense. When the Vols put in the second team in the 4th, Georgia scored a TD, got a turnover, and scored again, and suddenly the lead was 30-20, and there was barking. Enter Leonard Scott. Scott - who, to my surprise, ranks second all-time in kick return yardage behind the great Willie Gault in UT history - became the 4th Vol in history to take a kickoff back 100 yards for the backbreaker. ESPN's Ron Franklin: "Tennessee didn't just beat Georgia in 1999, they humiliated them." This was the final chapter of eleven great years of dominace over the Dawgs, and the third time in three tries that Tennessee had not only ended Georgia's unbeaten season, but left no doubts about it in the process.

33. 1996: #2 Tennessee 35 - UCLA 20 (Knoxville, TN)
Following the 11-1 1995 campaign, the Vols opened the 96 season ranked #2 in the nation, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, picked #1 by several preseason publications, and seemed poised to take the precious final steps to the top of the mountain. CBS had just been awarded the SEC telecast rights, and this was their debut game in primetime. Neyland Stadium had just been expanded by adding the upper deck in the north end zone. So while the Vols' season opening dismantling of UNLV was nice, this was the first big game in the newly-renovated stadium with the Vols ready for a magical season. And while all of that would come crashing down the following week against Florida, this one was fun. Peyton Manning vs. Cade McNown on a muggy night in Knoxville, and the Vols were hot early, opening up a 14-3 lead and then getting a key interception before halftime to help stretch the lead to 21-3. Manning returned the favor with an INT of his own to spark a Bruins rally, and late in the 3rd UCLA had cut the lead to 21-13 with the ball. When the defense held, UCLA was forced to punt, and Terry Fair took over, racing the kick back for a score. When McNown and the UCLA offense answered in the 4th to cut the lead to 28-20, Peyton Manning made one of the best plays of his career on the ensuing drive, executing the hitch-and-go to Joey Kent, and watching the defensive back bite and leave Kent open by almost 20 yards. That was enough to end the threat, and the Vols took the victory 35-20. The national excitement in the air on that night was tangible, and it wouldn't return - with a victory - for another two years.

32. 2001: #6 Tennessee 38 - Kentucky 35 (Lexington, KY)
"We can't be falling behind 21-0 to these guys." - Me. And right on cue, Jared Lorenzen hit tight end Chase Harp for a score, and midway through the second quarter, the Wildcats were unstoppable. Tennessee got a critical TD late in the half to Donte' Stallworth to cut the halftime lead to 21-7. In the second half, it was full go for 30 minutes for both passing attacks, as both defensive coordinators could only watch. First Casey Clausen and Kelley Washington connected from 49 yards out to make it 21-14. On the ensuing drive, J-Lo had a pass tipped at the line, picked off by DT Rashad Moore, who fumbled falling into the end zone, but Constantin Ritzmann recovered to tie the game. Kentucky came right back, as Lorenzen found Derek Abney (10 catches, 118 yards) to retake the lead 28-21. The 4th quarter was the Donte' Stallworth show, as the Vol junior simply ran past the tired Kentucky DBs for TDs of 23 and 38 yards, finally giving Tennessee the lead at 35-28. Not to be outdone, Lorenzen fired a 62 yard bomb, and the score was tied again with just over four minutes to play. For once in the second half, Tennessee could not find the end zone, and settled for an Alex Walls field goal from 44 yards with 2:49 remaining, giving the Vols a 38-35 lead...but everyone, including me, was thinking, "...that's way too much time." And we might've been right - Kentucky picked up back to back first downs and was another first down away from field goal range, when Chase Harp made a catch over the middle, moved inside the Vol 30, and then was stripped, and the Vols fell on the ball, breathing a gigantic sigh of relief along with everyone else in orange. What was tremendous about this game, aside from the offense, was the way that word spread around Lexington about Kentucky's 21-0 lead, and people started showing up to the game (especially students) just before halftime. Alas, it only made the heartbreak that much greater. That's okay, they're just a basketball school, right?

31. 2001: #7 Tennessee 26 - #14 LSU 18 (Knoxville, TN)
If not for the return engagement in December between these two teams - which stands uncontested as the most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee history in my opinion - this game would be much, much higher on the list. After both teams posted victories on September 8, the Vols were looking forward to the Gators and the Tigers to Auburn, which were to be the season-defining games for both teams. Three days later, everything changed. In the aftermath of September 11, the SEC played "will they or won't they" for 48 hours before finally deciding to reschedule the games of September 15. With both the Vols and Tigers having open dates the following week, and with both teams at 2-0 and fielding championship-caliber teams, this date was circled and built up for a fortnight, with everyone simply ready to get back to life and play football. The Tiger fans came from Baton Rouge en masse, and the National Anthem with both teams on the field was special on this night. When the game started, it looked like Tennessee was twice as rusty as the Tigers: first, Rohan "when did you get so big?" Davey found Michael Clayton 15 yards behind the Vol secondary for a 67 yard first quarter touchdown. When Casey Clausen was intercepted on the ensuing drive, LSU smelled blood. But Rashad Baker ended the threat with a red zone interception. The rest of the first half dragged out, with the Vols managing only two field goals to make it 7-6 at the break. And then, I truly believe the opening drive of the third quarter changed the course of the entire season for the Vols. At this point, Tennessee's offense was struggling, having scored only 13 in a downpour at Arkansas the previous game, without Donte' Stallworth, and trailing here. On the opening drive, the Vols benched Travis Stephens and went to Troy Fleming. And Fleming's one shining moment as a Vol was here, as the workhorse behind a 16 play, 82 yard, 9 minute drive that totally deflated the LSU defense and the visiting fans. Fleming carried 8 times for 42 yards on the drive, converting big third downs repeatedly. When Casey Clausen bootlegged in for the score, the Vols had a 12-7 lead. When Tennessee got the ball back the next time, two things had changed. One, Travis Stephens was re-inserted with a new outlook on the situation and pressure to perform - and perform he would, finishing with 94 yards on the day and going on to have the most productive season in Tennessee rushing history. And two, LSU's defense was now focused on stopping the run, freeing up a little-known elder statesman freshman wide receiver named Kelley Washington. Now, all the negative thoughts you have about K-Dub today, in 2006, I'll probably agree with. But on this night, "The Future" was just that, and I have rarely seen something like this. He was having a good night already when Clausen hit him across the middle, and he split the defense for a 70 yard touchdown. With a 19-7 lead there, the Kelley Washington show didn't stop. From that point on, Clausen locked in on #15, and there was nothing LSU could do about it. Washington finished with 11 catches for 256 yards (a school record that still stands), but his last one was most impressive. After the Vols went ahead 26-7, LSU got a touchdown, the 2 point conversion, then kicked a field goal with 3:12 remaining to make it a one possession game. The Vols needed to pick up first downs and run the clock out. LSU called a timeout on 3rd and long. And you, me, and everyone in the stadium knew exactly where the ball was going. And it simply didn't matter. Clausen hit Washington for 30 yards and a critical first down - 9 of Washington's 11 catches went for first downs - and the clocked ticked away. By the time the Tigers slowed the drive, there would be only :30 left and a failed hail mary to show for it, giving the Vols a hard fought victory. Forgotten as well is that the Vol defense held LaBrandon Toefield to 20 yards. With the Florida game postponed, this win here kept the Vols undefeated and moving up the polls - the Georgia game the following week, and the subsequent SEC Championship loss have made many people forget about this game, but it was certainly a big night in Knoxville.

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