As we saw yesterday, Tennessee is no stranger to lots of overtimes. And as we saw yesterday and will see again today, the memories are good. Sometimes it's easy to lose track of just how good. From the advent of the college football overtime system until the end of the 2010 regular season, Tennessee was 4-0 all-time in multi-overtime games and 9-2 in overtime games period. The Vols have won games of one overtime, two overtimes, four overtimes, five overtimes, and six overtimes.
Yesterday was six overtimes. Today is four. Like the 2002 Arkansas game, the 2007 Kentucky game was one that never figured to be destined for overtime. Needing a win to secure their place in the SEC Championship Game, the Vols jumped out to an early lead on a 65-yard touchdown pass to Arian Foster on the first play from scrimmage, and the orange and white were off to the races. In their first five drives, Tennessee got inside the Kentucky 35 all five times, and while they were only able to punch it into the end zone twice, it was good enough for a 17-7 lead that ballooned to 24-7 when they capitalized on a late first half interception by Andre' Woodson.
Kentucky would score to open the second half, but the Vols would answer, and Tennessee led 31-14 with 15 minutes and 10 seconds left in regulation. it didn't look like a game going to overtime. But that Kentucky team was good, perhaps the best we'd faced during the streak. Remember, this was the wild 2007 season that saw Appalachian State beat Michigan and Stanford pull off the biggest point-spread upset in college football history by knocking off Southern California. The season that saw South Florida ascend to #2 in the polls and Missouri to #1. And that saw Kansas--Kansas!--win a BCS game. That Kentucky team had made it into the top ten twice that year. They had beaten an LSU team that would go on to win the national championship. The Woodson-led offense could score on anybody. They were good. In fact, despite having lost 22 in a row against the Vols, and despite facing a Tennessee team that led the SEC East, the Wildcats came into the game as a 2.5 point favorite.
But with a 17-point lead and just over a quarter to go, you didn't expect overtime. Until Kentucky scored to close out the third quarter and scored again with 6:11 remaining in the 4th. When they got the ball one last time, down 31-28 and with 91 yards to go, the Wildcats had a legitimate chance to win in regulation. They drove the length of the field and ran five plays from inside the Tennessee five-yard line, any one of which could've won the game. I can count on one hand the number of times during the streak I genuinely thought it would end, and that drive was one of those times. I was praying for overtime.
We got overtime. Kentucky kicked a field goal, and it was tied at 31. But the Wildcats scored quickly to open the first overtime, taking a 38-31 lead that was soon countered by an acrobatic catch from a freshman Gerald Jones to send the game to a second overtime.
Remember those very few times I thought the streak would end? The second overtime was another one of those times. Erik Ainge threw an interception on the second play of the second overtime, and all the Wildcats needed was a field goal to win it.
The most impressive thing about Tennessee's multi-overtime success in the 2000s, apart from the final results, are the sheer number of times Tennessee looked sure to lose and managed not to. How many times have you seen a team fail to score in the first part of an overtime period and not go on to lose in the second part? It doesn't happen often. But it happened to Tennessee in the 2002 Arkansas game, and it happened again in the 2007 Kentucky game. Throw in a 4th and 19 against Alabama in 2003, and there were at least three situations where all hope was lost and Tennessee brought it right back.
In this instance, Kentucky drove the ball to the Vols 17 and set up for the game-winning field goal. A 34-yarder. That's all it would take. A chip shot. You know the story. In comes Dan Williams, the field goal is blocked, the game continues. [As an aside, the fact that the team without the ball is able to end an overtime period on a blatant facemask, as Kentucky did to Eric Berry on the return, with no penalty at all, is one of the most ridiculous quirks of the college overtime rules, and I cannot fathom why no one in a position of power things it should be amended.]
In the third overtime, both teams would score but fail to convert their two-point conversions. After Tennessee's failed attempt, Arian Foster threw the ball out of bounds in disgust, prompting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which does carry a penalty at all and put the Vols on the 40 yard-line to start overtime number four. It didn't take long for Erik Ainge to make up the extra distance, as a 40-yard strike to Quintin Hancock on the first play put the Vols up 50-44. A pass to Austin Rogers made it 52-44, and the Vols were assured of a win or a 5th overtime. They got the win.
In the bottom of the 4th, Kentucky kept the ball on the ground for four plays, resulting in 25 yards and a touchdown. But on the conversion, Andre' Woodson could simply find no room to run. He danced, and he danced, and he went down. The Vols had won yet another marathon, had taken the streak to 22, and had booked their ticket to the SEC Championship. (You're welcome, Georgia).