Nov. 21, 2013
Each Thursday, Brian Rice will take a look back at the Lowe's #DefiningMoments. This week, a trip to Nashville didn't follow the script. Fortunately for Tennessee, the defense was there for a stellar re-write on a rainy night in 1996.
By Brian Rice
One question hung over the scene at Vanderbilt Stadium as the Volunteers prepared to face the Commodores even more than the fog that literally filled the stadium. Would this be Peyton Manning's final regular season game at Tennessee?
The junior had accomplished seemingly everything he could in his three years wearing the orange and white. His season had felt much like a victory tour, including wins in back-to-back weeks over his father Archie's alma mater Ole Miss in Memphis and Georgia in Athens. He had avenged a loss in his first-career game at UCLA with a win over the Bruins in Knoxville in the season's second week.
Two years earlier, Manning had guided a run-heavy attack in Nashville to a 65-0 win over the Commodoes. As a sophomore, Manning threw for 265 yards but was held without a touchdown. He did just enough to engineer a game-winning drive on the back of Jay Graham in the final minutes for a 12-7 win.
The stage was set for a classic final act for Manning against the 2-8 Commodores. Despite the seemingly lopsided match-up, an ESPN national television audience tuned in to see Manning dominate another opponent with the aerial show he and the Vol offense had put on against opponents all season long. The problem? Nobody told Vanderbilt they were supposed to lay down, and it took a stout defensive performance down the stretch to hold on to the win.
The Vandy defense had been stout all season, ranked among the best in the country. The conditions of the night didn't help matters for the Vol offense. Heavy rain fell throughout the day and continued for much of the evening contest. Neither team moved the ball in the first quarter, as Tennessee gained just 16 yards on its first four drives, splashing in the puddles that formed on the artificial surface at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Commodores had fared no better, gaining just one yard in the opening quarter.
On the first drive of the second half, Tennessee went 72 yards in 12 plays on runs and short passes, capped by a toss to the left for Graham, who covered the remaining four yards on second-and-goal to put the Volunteers up 7-0.
The Commodores moved the ball well on their second drove of the second quarter, moving well into Tennessee territory. But on third-and2, the wet conditions came into play as VU running back Marcus Williams couldn't handle the hand-off and Tyrone Hines was there to find the ball. 61 yards later, Hines had the third defensive touchdown of his career and the Vols looked to be in full control.
The offenses continued to struggle in the second half as the teams combined for 22 punts on the afternoon. 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, VU quarterback Damian Allen heaved the ball long down field on first down. UT defensive back Terry Fair slipped on the wet turf, allowing freshman receiver Todd Yoder to run under the lofted pass and take it all the way to the endzone for the score.
VU continued to threaten as the fourth quarter wore on, but every time they were denied by the Tennessee defense. The Vols held the Commodores to just four first downs, -1 yards rushing and 139 total yards.
That stellar offense that ESPN came to see? Manning threw for just 163 yards, while Graham finished one yard short of 100 in his final regular season game. Much like the game didn't follow the script as written, neither did Manning a few weeks later.
After a win over Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl, Manning famously declared at a press conference back in Knoxville that he was staying for his senior season at the University of Tennessee. He would play 11 more regular season games and led UT to an SEC Championship in 1997. A win in that senior season made Manning 4-0 against VU. In four seasons, Manning recorded at least one win over all but two opponents UT faced, Florida and Nebraska.