Sept. 12, 2013
Each Thursday, Brian Rice will take a look back at the Lowe's #DefiningMoments. Four years after taking the field for the first time as a Vol, Peyton Manning returned to the same field in Pasadena, Calif., looking to build on a strong opener to his senior season. This was the Vols' last win on the West Coast.
By Brian Rice
#3 Tennessee 30, UCLA 24 - September 6, 1997
Tennessee traveled to face UCLA on the second week of the 1997 season flying high, propelled by the right arm of Peyton Manning, who had solidified his place in Tennessee lore already by passing on NFL millions to return for his senior season in orange. A week earlier, Manning had thrown for 310 yards and a then-school-record five touchdown passes in a 52-17 rout of Texas Tech in Knoxville.
But the story at the Rose Bowl at the end of the day wouldn't be the performance of Manning, though he was his usual impressive self, it was an impressive start by the defense and a team effort to overcome significant special teams issues down the stretch.
The Tennessee defense dominated the first quarter as a pair of defensive scores set the tone. With UCLA backed up deep early in the first after a missed UT field goal, Corey Terry got his hands on Bruin quarterback Cade McNown in the end zone. McNown shook Terry for a moment, but was held up just long enough for Leonard Little to break through and slam him to the turf for a safety.
Two drives later, McNown tried to avoid a sack just steps into UT territory by releasing a pass while in the grasp of Little, a pass that found the hands of Vol safety Cory Gaines, who returned it 57 yards for a 9-0 UT lead.
"We were in man coverage and my man blocked, so I just went after the quarterback," Little said.
The second quarter belonged to Manning and the offense. The senior hit Jermaine Copeland for a 24-yard touchdown early in the second frame. Copeland also caught a pass on the ensuing conversion try to make it 17-0 UT. Manning to Marcus Nash for 39 yards made it 24-0.
In all, Manning was 21-28 for 241 yards and those two touchdowns in the first half, but threw an interception late in the half to set up the first UCLA score, a 43-yard Chris Sailer field goal as the second quarter clock expired.
Sailer and Tennessee's Jeff Hall each had a field goal in the third quarter, giving the Volunteers a 27-6 lead headed to the final period.
Skip Hicks ran for a touchdown to cap a 99-yard drive as the fourth quarter opened, pulling UCLA within 27-13. A few plays later, UT punter David Leaverton tried to call timeout, but the ball was snapped before his request could be acknowledged, and it would sail past him and through the end zone for a safety that tightened the game further at 27-15. Leaverton hit the ensuing free kick short, giving UCLA possession on their own 42. Moments later, McNown found Hicks on a screen pass for a 50-yard touchdown and the lead was down to 27-21.
UCLA capitalized on another punting miscue, as the ball hit off the side of Leaverton's foot for just 16 yards, giving the Bruins the ball inside the UT 25. But the Vol defense held the Bruins to another Sailer field goal to make it 27-24.
The Tennessee offense stabilized enough to drive down for a Hall field goal to extend the lead to 30-24 with 4:42 to go, but it would take another pair of defensive stands to give Tennessee the victory.
UCLA threatened once again inside the UT 25, but Little forced a fumble recovered by Fred White to end the threat with 2:04 to go. UT couldn't move the ball, and Leaverton came out for another short punt, covering just 25 yards to set up the Bruins near midfield.
The Bruins drove once again toward the UT red zone, but the defense stood tall as Hicks was stopped for no gain on 3rd down and a McNown pass sailed high on 4th down with 0:21 to go, giving UT the 30-24 win.
"Leonard Little's strip at the end of the ballgame was probably the biggest play of the game," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "I'm just glad to get out of here with a win."
Manning finished 28-49 for 341 yards, while his top receiver Nash pulled in a career-high eight catches for 117 yards and his first-half TD. The Volunteers would fall two weeks later at Florida, but rally for an 10-1 regular season record to earn a spot in the program's first SEC Championship Game. A win over Auburn gave UT its first SEC title since 1990 and a berth in the Orange Bowl.