Thursday, July 10, 2008

10 Years: The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers Part Seven - The Stumble and Fumble

(Note: Updated from an original piece on The 50 Best Vol Games 1989-2005 at SouthEastern Sports Blog, September 7, 2006)

On November 7, 1998, No. 2 Tennessee was finishing off UAB 37-13 in the 4th quarter, when one of those special moments happened in Neyland Stadium.

Those on hand that day with radios or portable TVs were tuned in to the waning moments of No. 1 Ohio State and Michigan State, and as Tennessee's game ended with around 2:00 to play in the Big 10 showdown, no one left their seats as Neyland Stadium PA announcer Bobby Denton began to relay the events from up north. And when Ohio State was intercepted on their final drive, the celebration began:

The Vols would be the new No. 1 team in the nation.

Tennessee, after a season of memorable performances against Syracuse, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, had arrived.
Several hundred miles west in Fayetteville, a young head coach named Houston Nutt was in the midst of his first season. Danny Ford had been to one bowl game in five years, and the Hogs were coming off consecutive 4-7 seasons when Nutt took over. Expectations were moderate, but that all changed on September 26.

No. 22 Alabama came into Fayetteville, and left on the business end of a 42-6 beatdown. From that point, Arkansas kept grinding it out and slowly rising in the polls.

They beat Kentucky and Tim Couch 27-20. On October 31 they went to Auburn and won 24-21. And after beating Ole Miss the next week, Arkansas was 8-0.

They were disrespected: only four undefeated teams remained on November 14, but Arkansas was still ranked only 10th. But a chance for instant credibility was coming in a trip to Knoxville.

Tennessee was not worried; the Vols had seen their share of great teams already in 1998, and the thought was that Arkansas was simply untested.

On a rainy, misty fall afternoon from Neyland Stadium, the Vols ran through the T for the first time as the No. 1 team in the nation since the 1950s. All was right on Rocky Top. Arkansas brought their faithful en masse, as a crowd of 106,000+ was on hand. The Hogs were very much alive and well in the BCS hunt, and this was a rare SEC showdown - the latest two undefeated SEC teams had met in the season in almost 30 years.

But we weren't worried.

Legendary Vol Network radio man John Ward had it right in the pregame: "Everything...everything...is riding on this football game."

In the last fifteen years, there have been some incredible individual performances put up against the Tennessee defense. There have been quarterbacks - most notably Danny Wuerffel - who have lit up the Vol secondary. There have been running backs - most notably Georgia's Robert Edwards in 1995 (15 carries for 155 yards when he broke his leg in the third quarter) - who have torched the Vol defense.

And Tennessee has played against some great wide receivers - David Palmer, Hines Ward, any Florida Gator you want to name from the mid-90s, Terry Glenn, Eric Moulds, and yes, Peter Warrick.

But on this afternoon, Arkansas WR Anthony Lucas would stand alone. And it's not close.

It started on a long bomb to Lucas on the game's opening drive, which Arkansas would convert into a touchdown. But where it got real was on the first play of the second quarter, when Arkansas QB Clint Stoerner went down the sideline, and Lucas made Vol corner Dwayne Goodrich look bad. Real bad. 62 yards later, the Hogs were up 14-0. And Lucas looked unstoppable.

Tennessee battled their way to a field goal to cut the lead to 14-3 midway through the second quarter. But then, here came Arkansas again. And when Stoerner found Lucas in the end zone again, Arkansas led 21-3 with 3:15 left in the first half.

We all know about the end of this game, and we'll get to that. But let's not forget everything else that happened before it.

The Vols were in deep, deep trouble at this point, because it looked like we had no answers. You've got to understand, after the Vols gave up 33 points to Donovan McNabb and Syracuse, the defense was unrelenting. Florida's high powered offense got 17. Auburn got 9. Georgia got 3. Alabama and Shaun Alexander got 18. Arkansas had 21 before halftime, and they made it look insanely easy. And the fans who weren't worried were now full of fear.

It's interesting to note that those who were buying into the "team of destiny" deal at this point may not have been worried in the fourth quarter...but they were chewing fingernails and taking smoke breaks late in the second. Everybody was.

So one of the biggest plays in the game and the season was when Tee Martin - who struggled all day and finished 10 of 27 for 155 yards - gave the Vols something to think about by rolling out, barely escaping pressure, and firing a teardrop to Peerless Price from 36 yards away for the score just before the half to make it 21-10 going into the locker room.

All the thoughts of "we'll come out of the locker room and kill them" were answered by more Anthony Lucas and a 33 yard field goal on Arkansas' first drive of the second half. Anthony Lucas would finish the day with 8 catches for 172 yards and 2 TDs. Against the No. 1 team in the country. Those stats against the '98 Vol defense on that stage make it the most impressive performance by a wide receiver against the Vols that I've ever seen, no debate.

Down 24-10 with 11:43 still to play in the 3rd quarter, the march began.

Travis Henry and the offensive line began to push the Arkansas defense back. And when Tee Martin rolled out and kept it himself for a 4 yard touchdown, the game was back within reach at 24-17 with half of the 3rd quarter left to play. Jeff Hall would add to the score, and as the game went to the 4th quarter, Arkansas' lead was down to 24-20. And we had ourselves a real ballgame now.

But then Arkansas came to life again. After a series of punts, the Hogs drove to the Tennessee 16 with under 6:00 to play. If Arkansas found the end zone again, it would build a two possession lead, and with more than half of the 4th quarter gone it seemed unlikely the Vols would dig out of such a hole.

But the defense held, setting up a field goal attempt. And then a rare moment unfolded, where the orange representatives of the 106,000+ are all screaming "BLOCK THAT KICK! BLOCK THAT KICK!"...and it actually happened.

The Vols got all of it, rejecting the ball back and allowing Al Wilson to return it 50 yards to the Arkansas 28.

From this point on, sitting there dry under the overhang in section Z11, I felt like we would win. Even with what happened later, after seeing all I'd seen so far in '98, and seeing us keep them out of the end zone on that drive and then block that kick on command from the crowd, I wasn't worried even when I should have been. I think lots of Vol fans reacted that way.

But the realists among us would've been uncomfortable to see the Vols unable to score any points off the blocked kick, being pushed back and choosing to punt.

David Leaverton, however, pinned the Hogs at the 1 yard line. Arkansas avoided a safety for three plays, then lined up to punt. Then the snap went sailing over the punter's head, who kicked the ball (which is illegal) out of the end zone for a safety. 24-22, 2:56 to play, and Tennessee has the ball. A field goal will win.

Tennessee got one first down to move into Arkansas territory following the free kick, and after Travis Henry ran for one yard on first down, Tee Martin threw an incomplete pass.

Then he threw another incomplete pass. And suddenly it was 4th and 9.

Ward: "Last chance, probably."
And you knew - that with under 2:00 to play - this was crucial.

So when Martin's pass to Peerless Price was broken up over the middle, the Arkansas faithful went berserk, and the Vols were left with a horribly empty feeling.

Because it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Maybe the reason I wasn't worried is because I didn't have enough time to process it.

The Vols had two time outs, and thus Arkansas needed one first down to seal it.

Even if Tennessee stopped Arkansas three-and-out, they'd get the ball with just under a minute to play, with no time outs, in terrible field position. But we were still in it - remember, Arkansas wasn't trying to take a knee, they needed the first down.

Tennessee called a time out after a first down run for a short gain, and on second down Arkansas lined up under center. Ward: "This will be a major upset victory for Arkansas."

Now, I love me some John Ward. But if you really want to appreciate what comes next, you need to find the CBS feed and get Sean McDonough's call:

"Stoerner LOST THE FOOTBALL!!! Oh my goodness, he stumbled and fumbled!! And Billy Ratliff recovers!"

Some call it luck. Some like destiny. Some say Stoerner was careless. Others say Ratliff and Darwin Walker got such a push that they drove the center's leg into Stoerner and created disaster.

Either way, Stoerner lost his balance off the snap and reached down to try and brace himself. And he left the ball behind.

And no matter how you slice it, Tennessee came up with it. And the 1998 season had its lasting image.

Stoerner would later say "I just lost it. I don't know what happened." Houston Nutt: "I hate to lose one like that. I've never lost one like that." The opening line on the AP story from the game reads "The name Clint Stoerner will live forever in Tennessee lore and Arkansas infamy."
And though Stoerner would clear his name the following season by beating the then-No. 2 Vols 365 days later, on this night, he played a definitive role in the National Championship.

Still...the deed wasn't done.

I've heard all kinds of stories from my friends and other Vol fans about fights breaking out in the Neyland Stadium concourse because so many people tried to leave after Martin's incompletion, but they didn't get out of the stadium before Stoerner's fumble, and everyone's trying to get back to their seats in violent fashion. This is why you never leave early.

While anger and emotion swelled on the concourse, the look on the faces of the Arkansas' faithful in the stands was more subdued. Our season tickets are just above the visiting team allotment, and you could see it in their eyes: "Uh oh."

And the Arkansas defense was wearing the same expression when they came back on the field.

And that, combined with the Vol offensive line and Travis Henry, was trouble.

From the 43 yard line - still looking at a 60 yard field goal - Tennessee decided they'd had enough of passing, we're coming right at you. And so first it was Henry, breaking four tackles and getting 15 yards on first down. Ball at the 28.

Then it was Henry again, 15 more yards on the very next play through one of the biggest holes I've ever seen. In three plays, Arkansas had gone from sure victory on offense to having to play red zone defense.

And suddenly, we weren't thinking about kicking field goals.Third time's the charm, right? Well, this time Henry went for only 11 yards, down to the 2.

43 yards away with only a minute and a half on the clock, down four with only one timeout remaining, who runs the ball up the middle three straight times? Travis Henry does, to the tune of three carries for 41 yards. Unbelievable.

They did stop him on the next play at the one, but with the clock at :31 and only on second down, you knew what was coming. And now, you can switch the audio back to John Ward:

"They need to go to Henry...this will be Henry, he dives...GIVE...HIM...SIX!!!!"

Tennessee 28 - Arkansas 24.

The look on the Arkansas' fans faces after the game, I've seen before. Not at the time, but I've worn it myself since.

It has many names in the SEC. Tennessee fans call it The Jabar Gaffney Face, from his catch/no catch in the final seconds against Florida in 2000. Or The David Greene Face from his final drive in Knoxville the following year.

Florida fans had broken in The Collins Cooper Face earlier in the 1998 season, but we were all too busy to notice because we hated them so much. And on this night, Arkansas was introducing themselves to The Clint Stoerner Face.

It's that look of nothingness. When you were so sure you had the game won, beyond any shadow of a doubt, and you yourself were in massive celebration mode...and then somehow, inexplicably, it was all taken away from you in rapid, heartbreaking fashion.

If you ever see an aerial shot of a stadium when a team is kicking a game winning field goal, watch both sets of fans. If the kick is good, those thousands of people look like ants marching, an ocean of movement and sound and joy. But it's always the exact opposite from the other side - no movement, no sound, no anger...they just stand there and stare off into the distance, in search of answers because what they just saw couldn't really be true.

I'm always a fan of that face when I'm not wearing it.

And Arkansas wore that face for a full 90 seconds of game action, between Stoerner's fumble and Henry's eventual touchdown to win it, and then for several more minutes before they could walk away.

The one thing that made you not feel sorry for them was that we thought we'd see these guys again in the SEC Championship Game in three weeks. And when you win a game in such once-in-a-lifetime fashion, you really don't want to see the same team again on a neutral field with even more on the line only three weeks after you got away with one.

But then Arkansas was still feeling this one the very next week, and Mississippi State got the best of them. Suddenly Arkansas had gone from BCS contender to second in the SEC West. And the Pigs would have to wait 'til next year.

So this game, this night, lives on...I didn't appreciate this game in the moment or walking out of the stadium - it felt like it was our year and as such sometimes you take things for granted. It wasn't until the next day or so. You had to really step away from it, to see that this wasn't just another "we pulled it out late" game. This was a classic in its own right, that became the resonating moment from the 1998 season.

And for me, considering what was on the line? I like destiny.

1 comment:

lawvol said...

Another great one.

Really good stuff you've got going on over here. I just blogrolled you over at my house of shame: Gate 21.net - Life, the Universe, and the Bounce of the Ball.

For some reason I had not found your site before -- glad I have now.