Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005: Top 15 15. The Longest Third Saturday

15. 2003: #22 Tennessee 51 - Alabama 43 (5 OT) (Tuscaloosa, AL)
In 21 days, the 2003 season had gone from championship potential to the hot seat for Phillip Fulmer and the Vols. Tennessee rose as high as #7 in the polls before falling in a 21-0 hole at Auburn that they could not climb out of. The blowout home loss to Georgia the week after left more than a few heads shaking as the Vols had lost two straight, suffered through a long off week, fell to #22 in the polls, and had fans remembering 2002 all too clearly. Heading to Tuscaloosa, the Vols would face their old nemesis, who had ended a seven year run of futility in Knoxville the year before, but now were looking for their first ever win over the Vols in Tuscaloosa, despite a 3-5 start to the 03 campaign. AD Mike Hamilton - in the days before the firing of Buzz Peterson and last year's 5-6 football season - once called this his most trying time as athletic director, because the perception at the time was, "the sky is falling." The panic that ensued after losing only two straight goes to show you how far the Vols fell in 2005. But back to Tuscaloosa...the word for the week was "underachievers", and everyone from the fans to the media to the coaching staff had bought that line. Coach Fulmer addressed it in his pregame locker room speech:

"I can stand up here and scream and yell, Johnny can go around and scream and yell, but I'm telling you, it comes from your heart. Now, what do you want? You want another team meeting after the game? Or do we wanna be in here singing in the locker room, like a Tennessee football team is supposed to. I'm not trying to motivate you, it's a fact. All you guys that haven't stepped up yet, to play Tennessee football, now's the time. Now is the time, if I'm looking you in the eye, I'm talking to you. Now is the time. Believe it. Go take what you want."

Didn't seem to have much effect early. In a game that the CBS halftime studio crew called "unwatchable", Alabama got a field goal to end the first quarter, and the defenses dominated while the offenses played sloppy football for most of the first half. Alabama drove down to 1st and goal at the 2 late in the second quarter, but were denied three straight times, twice on tremendous individual efforts by Robert Peace, making a last-ditch solo tackle on Shaud Williams on second down, and sacking Brodie Croyle on third. When Bama went for the field goal, Jason Allen blocked it to erase the scoring threat. Casey Clausen finally got uncorked, hitting James Banks down the right sideline to set up a James Wilhoit field goal that looked like it would send the game to the locker room tied 3-3. But Brodie Croyle went long to put Brian Bostick in range, and his kick gave Bama the lead back, 6-3 at the break.

But Tennessee's offensive ineptitude wouldn't last forever. Driving to the Bama 25 on the opening possession of the second half, and facing 3rd down, Randy Sanders went into the playbook and inserted James Banks at quarterback in the shotgun, calling a QB draw that shredded the Alabama defense and gave the Vols a 10-6 lead. When Brodie Croyle immediately fired an interception to Corey Campbell, it looked like the floodgates were about to open. The Vols would get only three points, however, and on the very next Alabama drive, Croyle found Triandous Luke behind two Vol defenders for a 41 yard TD strike to tie the game at 13-13.

Midway through the 4th, Alabama moved to a first and goal situation again, this time from the five. After Shaud Williams was stuffed and Croyle fired incomplete, Williams pushed the ball to the one yard line with under 8:00 to play. On 4th and goal from the one, the Tide went for it, and Shaud Williams met Parys Haralson one on one. Haralson won, and Alabama had been turned away from the one yard line twice.

But again, just as it seemed Tennessee had seized all the momentum, the Vols fumbled (one of three on the day) and Alabama had the ball right back in great field position. So when Ray Hudson finally plunged in from the five, the Bryant-Denney Stadium crowd released three and a half quarters of frustration. Alabama led 20-13 with 4:47 left, then increased the fury by stopping the Vols 3 and out. Fulmer had no choice but to punt it away and put the game in the hands of the Vol defense.

Alabama got the ball at their own 27 yard line with 3:00 to play, and after a penalty had a 1st and 2 situation that seemed to doom the Vols. But again, Alabama could not pick up the short yardage, and when Dominique Stevenson popped Shaud Williams on 3rd and 2 (and Alabama got a bad spot), Bama faced 4th and inches with 2:00 to play. Given the past success in that situation, Mike Shula chose to punt the ball back to Tennessee, where the Vols took over from the 13 yard line.

Witness the greatness of Casey Clausen. On first down, Clausen went to James Banks for 14 yards and a first down. Next play, Clausen goes to Chris Hannon upfield into Alabama territory. Then Clausen found Troy Fleming wide open down the Alabama sideline, inside the 25 yard line. Then Clausen went on the quick out to Mark Jones, who broke multiple tackles in moving the ball to the Alabama 2. 85 yards in 7 plays, in the most hostile of environments, and less than one minute off the clock. For the final two yards, the Vols faked Jabari Davis over the top and flipped it to a wide open Troy Fleming.

But the quickness and efficiency of the drive almost came back to bite the Vols, when Tyrone Prothro returned the kickoff 38 yards and then got another 15 on a facemask to give Brian Bostick a 45 yard attempt with :04 left. The Alabama fans sitting in front of us in the upper deck turned around and said, "you've got nothing to worry about." He was right - the kick was partially blocked, and the game went to overtime.

In the first stanza, Clausen hit Derrick Tinsley, who held on to the ball in traffic for the score. The momentum meter was just getting warmed up, because just when the Vols forced a 4th and goal at the 6 and all signs pointed to victory, Croyle found Dre Fulgham, who made a great catch, and the score was tied 27-27.

With players on both sides sucking wind, Alabama rotated Tim Castille into the backfield, who went 15 yards into the Vol D for a score to give the Tide all the energy and a 34-27 lead. Then, when the Tide sacked Clausen and then forced an incompletion, the Vols had 4th and 19 at the 34 yard line. During the timeout, the Rammer Jammer was going strong and I was thinking about the coaching staff casualties of three straight losses, and how this 3-5 Alabama team had found a way to beat the Vols the way Gene Stallings used to get it done.

But - like far too many Vol fans - we forgot about Clausen. And apparently no one watches enough film to know that we're going to spread the field and then send the slot receiver dragging across the middle at about 15 yards on these 4th and long plays, because we do it all the time and it works with alarming frequency. CJ Fayton was way, way too open for 4th and 19, and got the first down and then some. Momentum: swing.

Clausen then fired a pass for Mark Jones that was tipped by an Alabama linebacker, tipped by Jones, and caught by James Banks in the back of the end zone. 34-34, we play on. Another film that opposing teams might want to pop in is any UT overtime game, because you'll often see the tendency to go for the throat on the first play of a possession once we've gotten past the second overtime. On this night, Clausen went to Banks down the left side for a score on the first play of the 3rd OT. The Vols could not convert the two, and Shaud Williams returned to the Alabama lineup much faster than the Vol defense, slashing in from 15 yards out untouched. On the night, the Bama workhorse ran 40 times for 167 yards. And much like the winning streaks in this great rivalry, the momentum went back and forth again; after the Vols had gone through all that in the second overtime, Alabama was one two point conversion away from victory. But Jabari Greer stepped in front of one for an end zone pick...and away we went to the 4th OT.

One of my favorite memories, by the way, started happening at this point. With Kory, Amy and myself sitting high above the field in the upper deck, Bobbitt had moved from his ticketed seat there in the Tennessee section, down onto the concourse above the Alabama student section. But we could see each other, and during the breaks between overtimes, we'd kinda give each other a look and then a shrug of the shoulders, like "well, I guess we'll just keep playing..."

Two almost-blocked field goals rang true for both teams in the 4th OT, sending the game to #5 tied at 43-43. The Vols had the ball first, and finally decided to go into their own stable of running backs, calling on Corey Larkins who made three big runs to the Alabama 5. From there, Clausen tried to bootleg and dove for the pylon, and came dangerously close to fumbling the ball through the end zone...which, as Corey Anderson found out in 2005, is not what you want to do at the Alabama one yard line with the game on the line. But Clausen would get his due on the next play, sneaking in for the TD. This time, the Vols got the two on the fade to James Banks in the corner of the end zone. Banks had a sensational night, with 7 catches for 103 yards to go along with his 25 yard TD run. Most importantly, the Vols grabbed the elusive eight point overtime lead, meaning that the best Alabama's offense could do was send the game to a sixth overtime. And you could feel the air start to go out of the balloon, as the drained Bama faithful got a little bit quieter...

Alabama ran three times to open its 5th OT possession, but was still two yards short of a first down. You cannot say enough about Tennessee's short yardage defense in this game, simply outstanding for sixty minutes and another five overtimes. Facing 4th and 2, and with the Vols stacking eight in the box, Brodie Croyle tried to go back to Dre Fulgham on the fade. It didn't really matter that Jason Allen knocked it away, as Croyle put too much on it and Fulgham was forced out of bounds to even try to make the play. And just like that, it was over. Five overtimes, lots of emotion, 94 combined points - easily the highest scoring game in this rivalry - but in the end, Tennessee had won the longest Third Saturday, 51-43.

Casey Clausen finished 23 of 43, 283 yards with 4 TDs and 0 INTs. Brodie Croyle was equally impressive, 21 of 38 for 215 and 2 TDs. Alabama ran the ball 61 times for 258 yards, but could never convert the short yardage when they needed it the most. This was a draining, trying loss for Alabama to take, as the Tide fell to 3-6, and Mike Shula - and many Bama fans, to their credit - could only commend the effort of both teams. Tennessee, meanwhile, had really saved their season in a memorable way, something that would carry them along the way to victory at Miami two weeks later. The Vols would go on to finish the regular season 10-2 and rose to #6 in the polls before losing to Clemson in the Peach Bowl.

Regardless of the outcome of either season, this game will forever be written in the history of the Third Saturday of October as a true classic. The Arkansas game had more overtimes and arguably more drama, but this was simply better because it was them and us, the Vols and Tide, waging war regardless of the records to the very end, the way it's supposed to be. I remember giving Bobbitt a big hug as soon as I saw him in the postgame, because it felt like Alabama deserved one. And that's what makes this rivalry most special - because you'll never see me with enough respect to hug a Florida fan - but there's only one Alabama. There's only one Third Saturday.

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