Friday, August 18, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: Top 15 13. Eddie Who?

13. 1995: #4 Tennessee 20 - #5 Ohio State 14 (Citrus Bowl)
An excellent measure of the success of this program, and, subsequently, the expectations of its fan base, is how excited we are to go to a bowl game. The thought that the Vols travel well is true - we'll bring our full share to Gainesville, Athens, Tuscaloosa and the like. We'll come to Atlanta with bells on. But for bowl games? Not so much, and here's why: it takes a lot to impress us these days. When we are impressed, when we are excited, when it feels like an accomplishment instead of a letdown to be in whatever bowl we're playing in, the Vols will bring it. At the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship, the crowd was 65-35 orange. In the Sugar Bowl in both January 86 and January 91, the Vols owned the dome. But consider this: in the last ten years, how many bowl games have Vol fans really been excited about? The National Championship aside, how many? In 97, Tennessee's excitement in going to the Orange Bowl was tempered by the fact that Michigan had to lose to Washington State the day before to give the Vols a shot at the top prize. The Citrus Bowl against Michigan - which normally would've drawn great anticipation and excitement - was tempered by the crushing loss to LSU in the SEC Championship. Same story to a lesser degree with the Cotton Bowl against A&M. And we just don't get excited about Peach Bowls around here.

If the Vols land in a January 1 or BCS bowl in 2006 - barring a late loss that leaves a bad taste - I'd say you'll see excitement, and you'll see us travel well. But normally, for bowl games, unless it's a really big deal, we're on a roll, or everything's on the line...sometimes we tend to go into them disappointed and then let the outcome of the game dictate whether or not the season was a success (2001, 2004) or a letdown (1999, 2003).

All that to say that the January 1, 1996 Citrus Bowl was a rare thing. The Vols - and their fans - were ready for this one. Tennessee was the second half in Gainesville away from being undefeated, and had instead watched the Gators go 12-0 and win the SEC Championship. In the days before the BCS and at-large bids, the Citrus Bowl was a place of honor, because the second best team in the SEC - which means you had a really good season - went there. And so in the tail end of the 1995 season, the Vols had won eight games in a row to finish 10-1 after the Florida loss, and rose to #4 in the polls. The season was also helped along greatly by the first victory over Alabama since 1985, which we'll talk more about later. Spirits were high and life was good in Knoxville, and since you couldn't complain about BS or getting screwed or anything else since the Gators were undefeated, we liked the Citrus Bowl.

And on the final day of the regular season, when Michigan upset #1 Ohio State 31-23, we started liking it even more. That not only knocked the Buckeyes out of the National Championship picture, but gave Michigan the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl bid. Which meant that a dominant (for the first ten games anyway) Ohio State team was coming to Orlando. And though I'm sure the Buckeyes were not excited about it, Vol fans loved it.

What's more - and this is a great subject for another blog some other time - these guys might be the most talented team the Vols have faced. Ever. Since 1989, we've seen some great teams - the Vols played against the National Champion Crimson Tide in 92, the Danny Wuerfful Florida teams in 95 and 96 were out of this world good, the Gators again in 1998 with Jevon Kearse, the 02 Georiga team that went 12-1, and the 2004 Auburn undefeated team, who we saw twice. And folks, that's just the SEC. The Colorado team the Vols tied in 1990 went on to win the whole thing, by beating the Notre Dame team that beat Tennessee later that year. The 1993 Penn State team that throttled the Vols in the Citrus Bowl had Kerry Collins (wait, how old is this guy?), Ki-Jana Carter, and OJ McDuffie. The first Nebraska game, in 1997, those guys would certainly get many votes for the best team the Vols have ever played against. And the 2002 Miami team, with Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee, was insanely good as well.

But I still might take this Ohio State team over all of them. Because they weren't just great on defense or great on offense, they were great everywhere. Did they destroy us the way Penn State, Florida, Nebraska or Miami did? Well, not so much, thanks to the Michigan loss and the rain (we'll get to that in a minute). But they did everyone else for the first ten games, and they certainly had the talent. If the Vols had beaten Florida and Ohio State had beaten Michigan, and the two teams played for the National Championship that year, where both teams were fired up and ready to go, on a dry field...well, I'll let you imagine it, but before you do, consider this: half of Ohio State's starting lineup was drafted in the first three rounds. Half! (Eddie Murphy voice) These aren't just "you know them from Ohio State" names, these are "that guy's on my fantasy team" names.

Just a few of the notables:
QB - Bobby Hoying
RB - Eddie George (Heisman Trophy winner)
WR - Terry Glenn
WR - David Boston
TE - Rickey Dudley
OL - Orlando Pace (First overall pick)
DE - Mike Vrabel
LB - Andy Katzenmoyer
CB - Shawn Springs
CB - Antoine Winfield

Now, let's make something else clear: if you line up the 1995 Vols with anyone, and I mean anyone from the Vol pantheon of the last 15 years - 1989, 1990, 1998, 2001 - it's even money. Tennessee lined up sophmore Peyton Manning at quarterback, with Jay Graham in the backfield, and the Joey Kent/Marcus Nash connection at wide receiver, playing in front of three NFL offensive linemen in Jason Layman, Jeff Smith, and Bubba Miller. By the way, the starting tight end was Scott Pfeiffer, now a proud member of First United Methodist Church of Alcoa. That's right, I'm name dropping Scott Pfeiffer.

On defense, Leonard Little anchored the line, and two of the most underrated Vol linebackers of the 90s - Tyrone Hines and Scott Galyon, mostly because of the trio of all stars who would play after them - helped bring the pain in front of one of our best secondaries with DeRon Jenkins, Terry Fair, Raymond Austin, and Tori Noel. Just writing this makes me cringe all over again about the second half of the 95 Florida game, because I really think we could've won the whole thing with this team.

Bottom line: this was a bowl game to be excited about. Two top five teams, both 10-1, both loaded with talent. Aside from the early Sugar Bowls or the National Championship, this is the most excited, most ready the Vols have ever been for a bowl game. You wanted this one bad.

Know who else was ready? Mother Nature. Any game on this blog where we talk about a torrential downpour - be it the 92 Florida game or the 2002 Florida game, the Arkansas game in 2001 where lightning caused a delay, anything - it all has to be in the context of this one. Because the rain in Orlando that day was straight from the Old Testament. I was there. It makes for a great story later, but the rain was so bad that it distracted you from the football instead of complementing the atmosphere of the game. Taking three steps from our hotel room door to the car meant you needed a change of clothes. Un-be-lieveable.

Our seats, by the way, were on the last level of the upper deck, right underneath one of those big light structures. So when lightning is flashing in the pregame, after driving 10 hours and being prepared for this epic contest between these two great teams...instead of focusing on the task at hand, we're actually, seriously considering if it's even safe to be there. Probably wasn't - I've read stories through the years of older folks who caught pneumonia and literally almost died from sitting thorugh this game. It was one of those things where a poncho was simply worthless and weighed you down. You get the idea.

Enough of that; the game itself now. Ohio State is favored and people everywhere think that if the Buckeyes come to play, Tennessee has their hands full. So when Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George plunges one in in the first quarter, and then Ohio State drives to first and goal in the second quarter, you're thinking "uh oh".

Enter the one and only Bill Duff. The Buckeyes had 4th and inches to score, and of course, with the big bruising #27 in the backfield, you're going for it. And the big bruising #50 on the defensive line was there to save the day.

John Ward: "Here's the give to George, I don't know sir! I do not know! Tennessee POUNDS him at the line, and it was Bill Duff, at the bottom of the heap...he-did-not-makeit!"

(I can't find any pictures whatsoever from this game, but the enduring image is of Duff coming out of that pile, absolutely screaming running back to the sidelines)

The orange-tinted crowd in Orlando would now be happy to get to the locker room down only 7-0. The rain was taking its toll on Peyton Manning and the passing game, and with time winding down in the half, the Vols were simply going to run the clock out. But for Jay Graham, "run the clock out" meant "break four tackles and run 69 yards for a touchdown." The best big play runner in UT history swung the momentum to the Vols as the game went to halftime at 7-7.

Side note: this was the 50th Anniversary of the Citrus Bowl, and they had a massive halftime extravaganza during which they released all of these doves. Doves, apparently, are not native to Orlando and not fond of torrential downpours. So for the entire second half, the doves have become lunatics, flying around the stadium at low altitudes trying to find a dry place. You can't make this stuff up. It should also be noted that I've seen the Ohio State band dot the i, and I'm not impressed. Circle drill 4 life.

They also served the best orange juice I've ever had from the concession stands, seing as how it was the Citrus Bowl after all. Perhaps the old Peach/new Chik-Fil-A Bowl will learn from this. Or maybe now in Orlando they just give away money.

Ahem...

To open the second half, Tennessee took the momentum it had already gained and doubled it early, when Peyton Manning finally got something going downfield. The 47 yard pass was really one of Manning's worst balls, badly underthrown, but trusty Joey Kent made the adjustment, stepped back in front of the defender at the five, and then spun into the end zone. And just like that, Tennessee had the lead 14-7.

That was all the offensive fireworks the Vols could manage, and the defense would have to dig in (did someone say illegal cleats?) The scored remained 14-7 as the game went to the 4th, but not for long. Bobby Hoying found tight end Rickey Dudley for 32 yards and a score to tie the game early in the final quarter. Dudley was a beast, grabbing five balls for 106 yards, and I remember thinking "So this is what a tight end is supposed to be like! We've got to get one of those!" No offense to Scott Pfeiffer, of course. Dudley's day was matched by Terry Glenn, who made seven catches for 95 yards.

With the score tied, the Vol offense still couldn't get anything going. But then the combination of the rain and the Tennessee defense won the game. Ohio State got the ball back in a tie game at 14-14. They fumbled. Tennessee recovered, drove to the 12 yard line, Jeff Hall kicked a field goal, and the Vols led 17-14. Ohio State got the ball back, and this time Eddie George fumbled. Tennessee then drove to the eight yard line, but still couldn't get in. So Jeff Hall came along again to extend the lead to 20-14. Ohio State needed a touchdown to win and was running out of time.

The Buckeyes started moving and got into Tennessee territory with the clock under 2:00. Now, if I'm John Cooper, and I've got the Heisman Trophy winner in the backfield who can run straight ahead and run people over, and I've got three outstanding pass catchers and a quarterback who can get it to them, and it's raining like the world is ending...the last thing I'm going to do is run the option. But that's why Jim Tressell is the coach in Columbus now. Hoying ran the option and badly mistimed the pitch, spinning the ball free and into the hands of the Tennessee defense. The threat was over, and the Vols had won a hard fought Citrus Bowl against one of the best teams you'll ever see. The Vols finished ranked #3 in the AP and #2 in the Coaches Poll, thanks to Nebraska's assault and murder of Florida in the National Championship game.

Eddie George had a solid day at the office, 25 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. The "Eddie Who?" chants came not because the Vol defense had shut him down, but because Jay Graham got 154 yards on 26 carries, including the 69 yard touchdown. Graham took home MVP honors to compliment Manning's 20 of 35 passing, held to 182 yards due to the rain. Joey Kent grabbed seven of those for 109 yards. Graham's 154 yards are the third most in bowl history for the Vols, behind Chuck Webb's insane Cotton Bowl performance of 250, and Travis Henry's 180 against Kansas State.

A closing thought on Ohio State: the Buckeyes and the Vols walk a thin line with each other. Ohio State doesn't quite fit into that Michigan/Notre Dame/Texas category of non-conference teams you pull against every time you see them. Because of this win, the Vols have the bragging rights and can rest easy with that. Eddie George is my all-time favorite Tennessee Titan. So they're okay, I suppose, in our book. But for Ohio State, between the illegal cleats and everything else that happened between the Michigan loss and the Tennessee loss, I'm betting they don't care too much for us. Maybe part of it is that northern/southern thing too, who knows.

I do know that in 1998, after Ohio State lost to Michigan State and was beaten in the BCS by Florida State to earn the right to lose to the Vols, in the postseason the university had a computer program simulate a game between the Vols and Buckeyes. They then had Ohio State's announcers broadcast the game "live" for the thousands of Buckeye fans to pretend that they'd won the National Championship. Really and truly, that's one of the saddest things I've ever heard. John Ward would quit or die before agreeing to do something that ridiculous. We like our National Championships to be the real life kind around here.

We need to play these guys again.

1 comment:

kroix said...

Trust me, I deal with 2 insane Ohio State fans everyday via the phone at work. They don't like Tennessee. But saying "20-14" usually does the trick to shut them up.