The Great Games
19 September 1998
(2) Florida 17 • (6) Tennessee 20
Due to exceptionally bad planning on my part, I graduated from the University of Tennessee in four years — making my trip across the stage to collect my diploma in May of 1998…
I say it was bad planning because, as fate would have it — after traveling across the country with the Pride of the Southland for four years, following the Vols to every game — when Tennessee’s 1998 “season of destiny” rolled around, I was living more than six hours away in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was a student at Tarhead State (UNC) engaged in my “Trade School” studies (I call law school that mainly to annoy all the Tarhead grads who infest the area where I now live) and quite far removed from my passion for Tennessee Volunteers Football.
Thus was my lot…
For what it is worth, I blame all of this on Joel at Rocky Top Talk since, as he and I both realized a few months back, he was my “teacher” in a crib-course on how to do well on law school entrance exams, and thus Joel is totally responsible for my entry into this sordid profession and my departure from East Tennessee exactly one year too early (This all makes perfect, well-reasoned, and orderly sense in my mind, in much the same way that Alabama coach Mike DuBose ultimately concluded that “Jesus wanted us to lose to Tennessee”).
Anyway, Tennessee opened the season versus the Syracuse Orangemen, and managed to hang on to victory by the absolute narrowest of margins — namely, Jeff Hall’s foot. The Gators, on the other hand, had beaten the living hell out of some school whose name eludes me, but I am sure it has “North“, “South“, “Central” “Left“, “Up“, or “Sideways” in its name.
After the 34 to 33 victory in the Syracuse game, I was somewhat less than hopeful about the Vols chances of winning against “Lord Spurrier and his Reptile Renegades.”
Nevertheless, given my incurable and uncontrollable addiction to traveling great distances, at considerable expense, to have your dreams crushed and your soul scarred, I climbed in my Volkswagen and headed back toward Knoxville for the showdown between the Florida Gators and the Vols. This was the first time I drove from Eastern North Carolina to Tennessee for a football game — it was a new experience. Now, however, I have made this journey so many times that I have all but memorized every single exit along Interstate 40 between the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area and Knoxville, and now I can (and on occasion do) drive it while sleeping.
As you might imagine, when I arrived in the Volunteer City, I didn’t have a ticket. After searching up and down Cumberland Avenue for an hour-or-two, I finally managed to find a single ticket, in return for all of the remaining money I had to eat on for the rest of my first semester of law school (making sure not to repeat my 1992 mistake of buying student tickets).
Despite the fact that my ticket told me that my butt was supposed to be planted in Section ZZ15 in the North Endzone Upperdeck, I chose Row 18 of Section D — the heart of the student section — as my vantage point for the game, since all of my friends were on the “5-year plan” (or 6, or 7, or …) and that is where they were situated. Considering that there were somewhere between 250 and 5,000 people crammed into that row, and each of those around it, apparently I wasn’t the only one bending the rules — or the bleachers on which we all stood, until they finally gave way and broke off of the concrete risers in the 4th-quarter.
The contest opened with the “Challenger,” the bald eagle soaring his way down from the North endzone across the Pride of the Southland during the National Anthem. How exactly that beautiful bird could find where he was supposed to go amidst the screaming of nearly 108,000 fans with flashbulbs turning the stands into a bank of strobe lights, is beyond me. What a way to start a hot and steamy fistfight.
And boy was it hot and steamy that night…
This is a gross understatement, almost on par with phrases such as “Michael Jackson is a little odd,” “Saddam Hussein was not a very nice man,” or “O.J. Simpson seems as if he would make a less than ideal husband.” I would describe the weather that night as somewhat akin to being trapped in Satan’s Crotch (Wow, I really can’t believe I just used that metaphor…) and this was a night game.
As for the game itself, there really is only one way to describe it which seems, to me, to fit …
… “Forced Stalemate.“
Neither team could ever get any separation from the other on the scoreboard — hence “stalemate.” I add “forced” because — at least by my mind — the two teams were not even.
On paper, the Gators had an overall advantage. When it came to Tennessee’s offense versus Florida’s defense, however, Florida — in theory — seemed far superior. Tennessee had a completely green and un-tested quarterback who had only one complete game under his belt, which he had barely managed to win. Florida, on the other hand, had a team peopled with demons from the seventh level of hell, coming in with a No. 2 ranking and the No. 1 ranked defense in the country, led by Jevon Kearse and Johnny Rutledge.
This game was decided on nothing more than heart…
Facing the tandem quarterback team of Jesse Palmer and Doug Johnson, the Tennessee defense came out with a vengeance, and ignoring the hype for the Gators, the Vols caused and recovered three fumbles in the first half along with 2 sacks.
While there were many huge plays in this game, in my mind, the one play which always stands out as the “one” in this contest, came in the first half, rather than near its conclusion. On the Gators second possession of the game, they managed a 10-play drive down to the goal line, and seemed poised to score. The defense, however, bowed its back. As Florida’s Terry Jackson rushed toward the endzone, Al Wilson made a mammoth stop of Florida’s march to six points. Instead of a Florida popping the ball into the checkerboards, Florida was stopped short, and when the whistles blew, Al Wilson and Raynoch Thompson had the ball. In my opinion this play completely define the outcome of the game.
Even with the explosive performance by the Tennessee defense, however, Palmer and Johnson, had an impressive combined 216 passing yards in the first half.
While the defense exhibited its fire, Tennessee’s offense only managed 10 points in the first half. Still, the much touted Florida defense gave up more rushing yards in the first two plays of the game than their 50-yard average prior to kickoff, as Jamal Lewis and Shawn Bryson combined for 64 yards and Tennessee’s first touchdown of the night. Jeff Hall would add a field goal in the second quarter. Thus, Tennessee clung to a 10-3 lead which held precariously until Jesse Palmer marched the Gators down the field for a 10-play 67-yard drive leaving the score knotted at 10-10 at the half.
When the teams came back on the field after halftime, Tennessee’s defense continued to pour-on the pressure. First, the defense fell on another Gator fumble. Then, Tennessee’s Deon Grant assured his place in the highlight reel with an acrobatic one-handed interception in the fourth quarter which gave the Vols the ball at midfield.
Then, with around 8-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third quarter, Tennessee found itself sitting on Florida’s 29-yard line with the ball. Tee Martin looked to Peerless Price who completely faked Dock Pollard allowing Price to gain the advantage. Price leapt for all he was worth, snatching the floater, which Martin lobbed his way, out of the air.
Here’s John Ward with the call…
[>> See post to listen to audio <<]
GIVE HIM SIX!!!
It was at that moment, I believe, that the Orange Nation first realized that the Vols could win this game. With that understanding, Neyland Stadium was snowed under in “white noise.” Still, every time the crowd believed that the Volunteers had victory in their grasp, and the losing streak was about to snap, Florida answered back. Even with a 17-10 lead, everyone knew the game was not over.
Within two minutes, however, Florida re-asserted itself. On third-and-11 from Florida’s own 30-yard line, Jesse Palmer passed to McGriff, who never even broke his stride en route to a 70 yard for a touchdown as he streaked down the sideline.
Once again … Stalemate.
Throughout the fourth quarter, the defenses shined as the offenses for both teams floundered. Neither team could manage a score, and thus, when the clock expired, the game was still tied at 17-17. The first ever overtime game held in Neyland Stadium was about to commence.
I remember watching the clock hit zero and thinking “this thing is going to spin out of control, and we’ll be lucky to escape.” After nearly 3 hours of constant screaming, I took the 30 seconds before the coin toss to slag back a family-sized, watered-down, sort-o’-Coke-flavored beverage that one of the vendors was hawking. I sat there, rubbing my eyes and my head trying to figure out whether Tennessee was done for.
The Vols were tired — that was obvious — but so were the Gators. I knew in my head that we needed a touchdown in the first overtime if we were to possibly survive.
This just proves that my head is an empty and vacuous black hole, apparently filled with little more than string cheese…
Tennessee got the ball first. It was clear that Florida was banking on their defense — which had held the Volunteers to 235 total yards in regulation — to finish the deal in hopes that their offense could dig deep one last time and come up with a touchdown. In all honesty — had I been a betting man — I’d have given them the upper hand. The forced stalemate could only last so long.
Tee Martin did not start overtime in a very encouraging fashion — he threw back-to-back incompletions on first and second-down. To make matters worse, a penalty backed the Vols up all the way to the 37-yard line — not even Jeff Hall could hit a 54 yard attempt. Then, miraculously, on third-down, Tee Martin scrambled out of the pocket and ran for his life straight to the center of the field and picked up 14 precious yards.
In a replay of the preceding game, Jeff Hall came out to try and give the Vols the advantage…
The kick by Hall is in the air. The kick by Hall is … Goo-dah!
Thus, Tennessee had a 3-point lead, but that would mean little if the Gators got into the checkerboards. The Tennessee defense truly stepped-up, and had to be playing on nothing more than fumes at that point … that and heart. After giving up a first down, the defense played the pivotal series with an absolutely smothering pass rush, and stymieing the Florida offense, leading up to a third-down prayer lobbed toward the endzone, that probably would have been a touchdown except for the fact that Al Wilson had an unprotected lightning blitz up the middle and connected at the exact second the ball was thrown. That incompletion meant it was time for Florida to kick its 32-yard field goal, and send the game into a second overtime.
It is very easy, as a fan in the seats, to consider field goals “automatic” after this game, I’ve never considered them automatic, and I truly came to appreciate how important the kicking game is.
The only person that can describe Florida’s Collins Cooper’s 32-yard kick is John Ward, thus, I’ll let him have the honors…
[>> See post to listen to audio <<]
That is still my all-time favorite call by John Ward…
With that, Tennessee’s losing streak against Florida — stretching back to the 1992 game — was over. Bedlam broke out in Neyland Stadium, and the field was completely engulfed by fans. In less than 35-seconds, both goal posts came down — one of which presumably still resides in the Tennessee River where it was hurled.
Here’s a few video highlights courtesy of Fred Thompson and John Ward:
Of course the News Sentinel had it’s thoughts as well…
I can honestly say, that the 1998 Florida game is still probably the single most exhilarating night of football I’ve ever seen in Neyland Stadium, and it still stands out to me as one of the Vols’ finest moments.
The celebration that night was unbelievable. Who knew that there were even bigger celebrations to come…
Tags: 1998, Al Wilson, Audio, College Football, College Football, Flashback, Flashback, Florida Gators, Football, Gate 21, Great Games, John Ward, Knoxville, Mike DuBose, Orange Nation, SEC, SEC Football, SEC Football, Sports Media, Steve Spurrier, Tee Martin, Tennessee Football, Tennessee Volunteers, University of Tennessee, Video, Video, Vols
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