Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: Top 15 10. In the Downpour

10. 1992: #14 Tennessee 31 - #4 Florida 14 (Knoxville, TN)
To understand the weight of this one, you have to go back to the week before, when the Vols went to Georgia and won 34-31 behind Heath Shuler and Phillip Fulmer, both fresh-faced and ready to go. The Vols were heavy underdogs in that contest but pulled it out, salvaging hope for the season. However, the dominant thought was that this would be the back-to-reality game, against Steve Spurrier and the #4 Gators. The year before, Florida had dominated Tennessee in The Swamp 35-18. Now playing in the same division for the first time, this one would go a long way in determining who would come out on top.

The skies were threatening, as they say, when the game kicked off. And the Vols continued to respond to Phillip Fulmer, starting hot by blocking a Florida punt in the first quarter. From there, Heath Shuler did the work from 11 yards out (John Ward: "Yes! Yes! Yes! Heath Shuler can run!") and the Vols led 7-0. This game was the true onset of the four headed monster for the Vols in the backfield, as teams would have to deal with James Stewart, Aaron Hayden, Charlie Garner, and Mose Phillips. By the time this day was over, the Vols had logged 250 yards on the ground between the four of them and Shuler.

James Stewart would score to make it 14-0, but Florida didn't just disappear. The Gators scored before the half as the Vols tacked on a field goal, and it was 17-7 at the break. When the rain intensified, the live national telecast was cut off. Our seats at Neyland are under the overhang on the lower level, so we enjoyed watching everyone else party in the rain, hoping the Vols could hang on.

The singular play that makes this game most memorable came in the second half. In the very worst of the rainstorm, Heath Shuler found Mose Phillips on a swing pass. Phillips went down the sideline, 66 yards into the checkerboard, and elation erupted in Neyland Stadium. As the Vols pushed the advantage to 17 points, fans began to mock the Gator Chomp all over Neyland - something I haven't seen like this since, being that we haven't had this large of a lead on Florida since then. But for the entire 4th quarter, the Vols chomped away. And Florida, slowed by the rain and Tennessee's defense, which abused quarterback Shane Matthews. Florida never got any offensive momentum, and the Vols won 31-14.

What that should've done was lock up the SEC East, but in October the Vols lost three consecutive games, losing by 1 to Arkansas, by 7 to eventual National Champion Alabama, and by 1 to South Carolina, handing the SEC East back to the Gators. Errict Rhett, Florida's star tailback, was quoted after the loss as saying "I could never say Tennessee is a better team than us. Never." 17 points says otherwise.

This game stood as the last Vol victory over the Gators until 1998, adding to its lore over the years. In 14 days, this team went from low expectations and unpredictability, to anything is possible and ahead in the SEC East. Gives you some hope for 2006...

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