Oct. 31, 2013
Each Thursday, Brian Rice will take a look back at the Lowe's #DefiningMoments. This week, November has been magic for the Volunteers, never more so than in 1998.
By Brian Rice
The month of November has long been a strong point in the story of Tennessee Football.
Since the 1985 Volunteers used a 5-0 month of November to clinch the SEC Championship and a spot in the Sugar Bowl, UT teams are 95-16 in the month. 17 times in that span, Tennessee has gone undefeated in the month, with those perfect months leading to conference or division titles in 1985, 89, 97, 98, 2001 and 2007.
Even more impressive are the SEC numbers in that stretch. Tennessee lost to Kentucky at Neyland Stadium on Nov. 24, 1984, but would not lose another SEC game in the month of November until a trip to Fayetteville, Ark. On Nov. 13, 1999. At home, the SEC November streak continued until Nov. 19, 2005, when Vanderbilt claimed a 28-24 win, the first by a conference opponent in over two decades.
On Nov. 14, 1998, Tennessee needed a little bit of November magic to keep the streak going, along with another win streak that was a little more significant in the present tense.
The Volunteers entered the meeting with the Arkansas as the newly minted No. 1 team in the country, a perfect 8-0 after a win over UAB a week earlier. Across Shields-Watkins field stood the Razorbacks, also 8-0 under first-year head coach Houston Nutt and ranked No. 10.
UA jumped out to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter as Razorback QB Clint Stoerner tossed a pair of touchdown passes. After a Jeff Hall field goal finally put UT on the board, Stoerner struck again with his third TD pass, his second to Anthony Lucas, to put Arkansas up 21-3. Tee Martin found Peerless Price for a 36-yard TD with 2:03 left in the opening half to cut the lead to 21-10.
Arkansas extended its lead with a third-quarter field goal. But as the stadium lights took hold on a cool and rainy late fall afternoon, the game began to turn back Tennessee's way.
Martin cut the lead to seven with a four-yard TD run and Hall cut it further with a 21-yard field goal with 57 seconds left in the third. A blocked Arkansas field goal gave Tennessee great field position inside the UA 30. The Vols went backward instead, but were able to pin Arkansas on its own 1-yard line with a David Leaverton punt.
The Tennessee defense stood tall and forced a punt, but the ball never reached the hands of punter Chris Akin. The snap sailed over his head, leaving Akin with no play but to boot the ball backward to his own end zone for a safety.
UT took he ball at midfield after the ensuing kick, but a run and three incomplete passes ended the drive, and, it appeared, the perfect season. Enter November magic.
Leading 24-22, Arkansas needed only one first down to run out the clock. On second-and-12 with 1:43 to go, Stoerner rolled to his left, but the push from the Tennessee defensive line caused Stoerner to trip on the foot of offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth. Stoerner attempted to use the football to steady himself, but as he stumbled, the ball came free from his hand, and Billy Ratliff lept on top of it to ensure UT would have one more shot at keeping the dream season alive.
From there, it was all Travis Henry. The sophomore ran for all 43 yards picked up on the five plays of Tennessee's final drive, with the final play described this way by the Vol Network's John Ward:
"They need to go to Henry. This will be Martin, this will be Henry, he dives...GIVE. HIM. SIX. That's all. TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE...TRAVIS HENRY!"
Henry's 43 yards on the drive gave him a career-high 197 on the afternoon. An understandable excessive celebration penalty led Phillip Fulmer to call for a kneel-down instead of a long extra point try and a final score of 28-24.
As you may recall, Tennessee blew out Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the following weeks, 59-21 and 41-0, respectively to cap a perfect November and regular season. After a 24-14 win over Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game, the Vols won the first BCS National Championship with a 23-16 victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.