I love, love, love college football overtime. The game is forced into red-zone-only, last-opportunity mode, and every snap is loaded with drama. Two of my absolute favorite Tennessee football memories involve overtime games, including the 6-OT marathon against the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2002.
The first 50 minutes or so of game time were mostly unremarkable except for the novelty of Hogs QB Matt Jones looking like he was the slowest player on either side of the field and yet somehow eluding our quicker-looking defense seemingly at will. It was the long-strider effect. He looked like he was barely moving, but nobody could actually catch him, and when the play was over, he'd somehow gotten a first down. We spent most of the game marveling at this wonder with some fugitive from the Arkansas section who'd been run out of the visiting section by security and relocated to our section. Being surrounded by Tennessee fans now, he was well-behaved and good natured, and because the Vols seemed to have the game well in hand despite Jones's magic, we mostly laughed at how Jones seemed to have special powers.
Tennessee had Arkansas down 14 late in the 4th quarter. Even when they scored their first touchdown with just under seven minutes remaining to make the game 17-10, we weren't actually worried because Tennessee ran some clock and then Dustin Colquitt nailed a 50-yard punt, which was fair caught it at the 8-yard line. There were only 3.5 minutes to play, and not even Jones's long legs could do anything that deep in his own territory. But on the next play, Jones hit Richard Smith for a 92-yard TD that tied the game. Oops.
And that's when the game actually began.
Tennessee nearly gave the game away on the first play of overtime with an ugly broken play, but they kept the ball and hit a field goal after the officials picked up a thrown flag on 3rd down. The key play in the next series was Demetrin Veal playing Jones on a roll out perfectly, stringing out the play, discouraging the pass, and somehow containing Jones until he ran out of room and went out of bounds. Aubrayo Franklin also caught Jones on 3rd down (barely, by the ankles) and the Vols held the Hogs to a field goal and sent the game to a second overtime.
After Arkansas got only a field goal in the second OT, the main item of note for Tennessee was that Casey Clausen ran for a 1st down. There's video and everything to prove it. And then fans booed when a QB draw netted nothing on 3rd down and Tennessee had to line up to attempt a field goal.
As you probably know, you never want to hear two thumps on a field goal when you're the one trying to score points. The attempt was tipped -- practically blocked -- and the ball wobbled more like a dead than wounded duck toward the uprights. It just. Barely. Squeaked. Over. Tie game again. Whew. That was close. But it was nothing compared to what was about to happen.
The Hogs should have won in the 3rd overtime. Clausen attempted a handoff to Derrick Tinsley, and the ball ended up on the ground and then in the hands of the defense. All they needed to do was kick a field goal. A turnover by the first team to play in an OT period is usually game over. But of course, Arkansas missed, because drama had the wheel tonight and wouldn't let loose.
In the fourth OT, Jones scores a TD on a weaving run to the corner of the end zone, which was agonizing to watch. But they missed on the mandated two-point conversion attempt, so we just needed a TD. And we got one, too, on a marvelous fake screen that caused every Hog to bite and led to a wide open Tony Brown in the end zone. And then we missed our two-point conversion as well. Of course.
About this time, I'm trying to use my cell phone to call my wife and explain to her how to extend the time on the VCR. I could hear nothing. Nothing. So I just watched the screen to see if it's connected and then screamed instructions into the phone and hoped for the best. All of us Tennessee fans and the fugitive from Arkansas are in that unique state of smiling agony that only college football overtime can produce.
In the 5th overtime, Jabari Davis barreled toward the goal line and lost the ball as he crossed it, giving simultaneous heart attacks to everyone in our section. Fortunately, our guy fell on it in the end zone, and it was called a touchdown anyway. On our two-point attempt, we called another QB draw for Casey Clausen, whom I love, but really? We get nothing. When Arkansas got the ball, they too scored a TD, and on their two-point attempt, Julian Battle intercepted the pass. So six overtimes it is.
Six overtimes. Each one drama in concentrated form. At the time, it's the 2nd-longest game in NCAA history. Fun fact: In addition to this game, Arkansas played a 7-OT game in 2001 and another in 2003. They won both of those but lost this one. Hahahahahahahaha.
Anyway . . . back to the action.
On their first snap in the 6th, Arkansas ran a broken play, which as it turns out, probably cost them the game. They ended up having to attempt a 47-yard field goal, which they hit. But on Tennessee's first play, Clausen hit Jason Witten on a post route, and Witten found the end zone.
The moving image is permanently branded onto my mind: An exhausted Witten crossing the goal line, slowing and stopping just before the uprights, arching his back, pointing one figer and both eyes into the Neyland night sky, and holding it there for just a second or two before he's mauled by his teammates.
It's a win, but it's so much more. It's a victory after an epic, epic struggle that was peppered with heartbreak along the way, both teams giving everything they had long into the night, which was actually the next morning. And it ended with just the right guy standing triumphantly in the checkerboards.