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The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era: 45-41

We continue our look at the most memorable wins from Phillip Fulmer's seventeen year career in Knoxville, still working through them five at a time until we get closer to the top.  As before, we invite your memories as well - each game on the countdown will hopefully bring more and more good times back from the past while we wait to see how the present will play itself out.

The list so far:

  • 50. 1994:  Tennessee 45 - #17 Virginia Tech 23 (Gator Bowl)
  • 49. 1994:  #19 Tennessee 41 - #23 Georgia 23 (Athens)
  • 48. 1996:  #9 Tennessee 48 - #11 Northwestern 28 (Citrus Bowl)
  • 47. 1999:  #7 Tennessee 24 - Auburn 0 (Knoxville)
  • 46. 1996:  #7 Tennessee 29 - Georgia 17 (Athens)

The writeups so far:

This installment finds us almost exclusively featuring games in this decade, as we remember Lou Holtz, the triple option, and sunsets...

45. 2001:  #9 Tennessee 17 - #12 South Carolina 10 (Knoxville)

If you liked defense, then this was your night in Neyland Stadium.

Carolina, at the height of her power under Dr. Lou, was 6-1 coming into Knoxville, and still in control of their own destiny in the SEC East.  The usual November brutality was before them in the schedule, but a win in Knoxville would set up a showdown with the Gators two weeks later to determine the fate of the Eastern Division.

The Vols had also lost only once, to Georgia in The Hobnailed Boot Game, and was also still in control of its own destiny, with the postponed date with Florida looming in December.  Ranked 9th on the last weekend of October, no one fully realized this then...but the Vols were also still very much in the National Championship hunt.

After Holtz had turned Carolina around the year before, he had this team poised to cash in on their good fortune with blue-collar players like Phil Petty, the tandem of Andrew Pinnock and Derek Watson in the backfield, and a tough defense.  Alabama had burned them for 36 points (in a game the Cocks won by scoring 37), but no other team had scored more than two touchdowns against them.  And the Vols wouldn't either.

Travis Stephens - still in the midst of his Doak Walker campaign - broke a scoreless tie with less than three minutes to play in the first half with a touchdown.  But Carolina roared downfield in those three minutes and got a touchdown from Watson to even the game at 7-7 at the break. 

In the second half, the teams exchanged goal-line stands:  Tennessee had first and goal at the Carolina 5, but came away with only three points on the opening drive of the third quarter.  Early in the fourth, Carolina had second and goal at the one yard line.  They tried Andrew Pinnock twice, and twice he was denied by Albert Haynesworth.  They too settled for three, and tied at 10 the game seemed destined for overtime.

But driving late, Casey Clausen and Bobby Graham - the two most underappreciated Vols of this decade - connected for 32 yards on a third down play, moving the ball inside the Carolina five.  Stephens got his second TD from there, putting the Vols back in front 17-10.  120 hard earned yards from Stephens on the day, besting Watson who had 75 (but only three in the second half).

Carolina got a pass interference call to move to the Tennessee 43 on their final drive, but they would get no closer as Petty fired three consecutive incompletions to end the threat.  At this point, Carolina had lost nine straight to the Vols and never won in Knoxville, two streaks that would end four years later.  The Gators ripped Carolina two weeks later, but they recovered to beat Clemson and then beat Ohio State in the Outback Bowl, capping arguably their most successful season of the modern era.

44. 1993:  #6 Tennessee 38 - #22 Georgia 6 (Knoxville)

In the second regular season game of Fulmer's official tenure as head coach, the Vols made an immediate statement against a ranked conference foe, serving notice that the Tennessee program was knocking on the door of new heights.

The 93 Vols are still the progam's all-time leader in scoring offense, led by Heath Shuler at quarterback and the stable of Charlie Garner, James Stewart and Aaron Hayden at tailback.  Add Cory Fleming and Craig Faulkner behind a talented offensive line, and this team meant business.

Georgia was equally talented offensively under Eric Zeier, but on this night the Vols showed they also had a defense to be accounted for.

Leading 7-6 in the second quarter, the Vols allowed Georgia to drive into the red zone for a potential go-ahead score.  But that's when DeRon Jenkins made a leaping interception in the corner of the end zone, snuffing out the threat.  When the Vols scored twice on consecutive drives to end the first half, the game was already out of reach.

The domination continued on both sides in the second half:  for the game, Zeier was held to an amazing 114 yards passing.  Garner paced the Vol offense with 107 on the ground, while Fleming pulled in 105 receiving yards and 2 TDs as the Vols pulled away 38-6.  Tennessee would lose at Florida 41-34 the next week, their only loss in the regular season during the 1993 season.  The win over Georgia served notice that Tennessee was taking the next step under Fulmer.

43. 2006:  #11 Tennessee 31 - Air Force 30 (Knoxville)

Everything that went wrong in 2005 was made right in sixty minutes to open the 2006 season.  When the Vols dispatched #9 Cal 35-18, all the bad vibes were breathed out, and that old familiar optimism was breathed right back in.  The Gators would be coming to town in two weeks, and Vol fans couldn't wait to extract immediate revenge.  Total frustration was replaced with blind hope, and we set our sights on Florida.

Inbetween the two was Air Force, and the stories in the week leading up to the game were about how we shouldn't boo these guys when they run onto the field, and how since we weren't playing Nebraska, now we could finally stop the triple option.

We didn't boo.

Didn't stop the option either.

In an amazing contrast of styles, the Vols and the Falcons traded blows all night at Neyland Stadium.  Air Force struck first with an opening drive touchdown, then pushed their lead to 10-3 before the Vols answered with touchdown passes from Erik Ainge to Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain to close the first half.  Tennessee was in front 17-10...and we weren't really worried.  Yet.

We especially weren't worried when Montario Hardesty scored to open the third quarter, giving the Vols a two touchdown lead.  Even if we couldn't stop the option, we felt good knowing that now Air Force would have to throw more, and even if we couldn't stop them, they hadn't stopped us yet.

But going back to the drive chart on this game, you notice very few of those broken lines.  Air Force only punted twice.  The Vols never punted.

And yet, the drama continued.  The Falcons answered Hardesty's touchdown with an immediate score.  When the Vols scored again to make it 31-17, they forced the Falcons' second punt, drove downfield and looked to put the game away.

The last meaningful offensive play for Tennessee was a tipped ball that was intercepted at the 10 yard line by Air Force, with still a ton of time left in the game.  From there, the Falcons drove downfield and scored again, making it 31-24.

So here comes the onside kick, and just as soon as you can't remember when the last time you saw someone actually recover one of these was, Air Force does it.

When they come marching down the field again, a thought starts to creep into my head:

"If they score, they're going for two."

No need to play defense, since they hadn't forced a punt all night.  When the option was in the middle of a 281 yard rushing night, and when Phillip Fulmer is saying "I'm standing on the sideline, and I can't see who's got the ball", you take your chances from the three.

And as they get closer and closer to the end zone, you think about how all those bad thoughts that you put to bed when we beat Cal seven days earlier are getting ready to come right back to haunt you.

They score.  And of course, they send the offense back onto the field.

The call was curious, going away from the option and instead pitching it back to the fullback.  And for once, the Vols were in the right place:  Xavier Mitchell made the biggest play of his football career, swallowing up the play and ending the threat.

Air Force tried the onside kick again, and after a penalty tried another...but this time the Vols recovered, and everybody exhaled.

Three Falcons ran for more than 50 yards against the Vols.  Meanwhile Erik Ainge had arguably the best game of his career, statistically speaking:  24 of 29, 333  yards, 3 TDs and that one costly INT. 

The Vols escaped, but lost Inky Johnson in the process.  However, you can't say enough about the way that Inky has responded to a horrible injury that ended his football career and affected his day to day life.  Like the Vols, Inky pushed forward, and this win would be a step towards better things to come in 2006.

YouTube:  Tennessee/Air Force Highlights

42. 2008:  Tennessee 28 - Kentucky 10 (Knoxville)

Enough has been written about Fulmer's last game recently that I won't rehash the emotions or the moment.  I'll only say that I can't imagine how bad it would've been if we'd lost this game, and I'm very glad he got to ride off the field on the shoulders of his offensive linemen, victorious one last time.

I'll also point you to what we've already said about this game and this moment:

41. 2000:  Tennessee 17 - #17 South Carolina 14 (Columbia)

The year before the showdown in Knoxville between Lou's Gamecocks and the Vols, Tennessee was in an admitted rebuilding year, and was 3-3 and nationally irrelevant for the first time since 1994.  Meanwhile, Carolina was off the deck from a winless campaign, had upset what was supposed to be the best Georgia team in forever in the second game of the season, and was still riding high and in control of its own destiny in a year where the rest of the SEC East was especially vulnerable.

I believe that fans take on the nature of their head coach (hold your Kiffin/Orgeron jokes please).  I've been to Columbia to see the Vols play more than any other opposing venue, five of the last seven times we've been there, and I've noticed a change in their interaction.

In 1996, a South Carolina fan came up to my Dad and I and thanked us for letting them in the Southeastern Conference.  I think we said "'re welcome?"

By 2000, these guys were singing "Who let the Cocks out?  LOU LOU LOU LOU!"

Casey Clausen was making his second career start after leading the Vols to a 20-10 win over Alabama in Knoxville the week before.  But he'd need all the help he could get to win this one.

And the Vols got it early:  Derek Watson fumbled a punt, and the Vols capitalized with a Travis Henry touchdown in the first half.  Carolina returned the favor when Kalimba Edwards intercepted a pass off the hands of Cedrick Wilson, and raced back 81 yards for the score.

Defenses were dominating, and you felt like one play would break it for either team.  That annoying thing that the Gamecocks do at home - "That's another South Carolina FIRST DOWN!" - was on such lockdown for most of the game, the celebrations when they actually got one were louder than ever.  At the time, this was the largest crowd to ever witness a football game in South Carolina history.

The one big play appeared to go to the Gamecocks:  Phil Petty found Ryan Brewer on a bomb, and South Carolina grabbed a 14-10 lead.  Another close loss for the Vols would've been nothing new in 2000, while Carolina seemed destined to take that next step towards a very real shot at Atlanta.

But that's when Casey Clausen put his big boy pants on for the first of many times in his Vol career.

The Vols went 68 yards in 16 plays, chewing six and a half minutes off the fourth quarter clock.  The defining moment of Clausen's freshman year was a 3rd and 14 completion to Donte' Stallworth on the drive, which ended with Travis Henry going over the top and the Vols back in front 17-14.  The little time that South Carolina had left was eaten up on a John Henderson sack...and the Vols had escaped Columbia victorious once more.

Walking out of Williams-Bryce Stadium, another Gamecock fan came up to my friends and I and said "Tell me you guys at least respect us now." 

Ah, those were the days.  Break a team's heart in the final minute, and still have their fans happy with simply your respect because you were Tennessee and they weren't.

What about you?

Any memories from you guys on any of these games?