Aug 29, 2013
Each Thursday, Brian Rice will take a look back at the Lowe's #DefiningMoments. With the Vols' 800th win in sight, here's a look at the 700th win back on Sept. 2, 2000.
By Brian Rice
The Volunteers make their first attempt at securing win #800 on Saturday in the season opener against Austin Peay. The season's first Throwback Thursday travels back to the year 2000, where a team with similar questions to the 2013 squad won a season opener for win #700
#13 Tennessee 19, #22 Southern Mississippi 16 - September 2, 2000 » Stats
The 700th win in Tennessee Football history didn't come easily in the 2000 season opener.
The Volunteers, coming off back-to-back Fiesta Bowl appearances, had much to replace from a team that had gone 9-3 a season earlier. Most notably, at the quarterback position, where Tee Martin and his 22-3 record as a starter had moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a 5th-Round draft pick.
With the presumptive favorite in the competition to replace Martin, freshman Casey Clausen, sidelined with elbow tendonitis, redshirt sophomore Joey Mathews and redshirt freshman A.J. Suggs were left to battle it out for the season opener.
Mathews, from just up the road in Sevier County, got the starting nod, while Suggs came on in relief. But it was the Tennessee defense and a string day from running back Travis Henry that powered the Volunteers to victory.
On the first play of the game, Anthony Sessions dropped Southern Miss quarterback Jeff Kelly for a 9-yard loss, the first of nine total sacks on the day. A drive later, however, it was USM striking first for a 36-yard field goal set up by a Mathews interception returned by the Golden Eagles to the UT 21.
After the teams traded punts, a pair of Henry runs totaling 46 yards put the Vols in business at the USM 21. Travis Stephens carried twice before Mathews found Cedrick Wilson for a 5-yard pass to give UT its first lead of the season, 7-3, following the Alex Walls PAT with 1:34 left in the opening quarter. The TD pass was the first of Mathews' career.
Neither team scored in the second quarter, as seven possessions between the two sides ended in six punts and a kneel down. The offensive struggles continued for Tennessee on its opening possession of the second half, but Southern Miss returner Shawn Mills muffed a punt, giving the ball right back to UT at the USM 27. A completion from Mathews to Henry for 12 yards shortened the distance for a field goal from Walls to extend the Vol lead to 10-3.
Will Overstreet came up with the seventh sack of the day for the UT defense, hauling Kelly down in the checkerboard for a safety to put the Vols up by nine with 5:40 to go in the third. After the teams traded punts, Suggs hit Donte Stallworth for a 51-yard touchdown to seemingly put the game out of reach at 19-3.
In the final quarter, Southern Miss made a furious comeback attempt, cutting the lead to 19-9 after a Kelly pass and a failed 2-pt conversion attempt. Henry and Stephens ran hard on the ensuing Vol drive, but a pair of losses stalled the drive. David Leaverton pinned USM at its own 4-yard line with a spectacular punt, but the Golden Eagles rode the arm of Kelly 96 yards in 14 plays, including nine Kelly completions, the final one a 7-yarder to Mills to pull within 3, 19-16, with 0:55 left.
Bobby Graham pounced on the ensuing onside kick, sealing win #700 for the Tennessee program and providing a big sigh of relief for head coach Phillip Fulmer and the 108,064 that packed newly-expanded Neyland Stadium.
"Southern Miss had us on our heels at the end, but we had enough to overcome," Fulmer said.
Tennessee won its sixth-straight season opener, the midpoint in a run of 12-consecutive opening-day wins from 1995-2006 and became the eighth school to reach 700 wins, joining Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Penn State and Ohio State in reaching that plateau.
Clausen would make his season debut two weeks later against Louisiana-Monroe and assumed the starting role against Alabama. Mathews was sidelined with a knee injury suffered in the USM game and would only make one other appearance in a Tennessee uniform, completing one pass for seven yards late in a 63-20 win over Arkansas. He graduated early from UT in spring of 2001 to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Suggs completed 81 of 139 passes in 2000 for 785 and five touchdowns before electing to leave UT following the season. He returned to his home state of Georgia, where he finished his football career at Georgia Tech.