(finals are over, binge writing continues, woo!)
I sat in the student section at Neyland Stadium from 1999-2002. In that timespan, I saw plenty of heartbreak - Jabar Gaffney's catch/no-catch, Georgia's Hobnailed Boot, Casey Clausen fumbling everything away against Florida in the rain, and Alabama's first win against the Vols in eight years.
And there are also plenty of good memories: blasting Georgia in 1999, the post-9/11 game against LSU, the genesis of Casey Clausen and lots of great plays from guys who are playing in the Pro Bowl today.
But my absolute favorite student section game happened in 2002. It's a game that gets lost in the shuffle, because it's really the only really good thing that happened to Tennessee that season, meaning there's no DVD with its highlights on it, and winning this game ultimately didn't lead to anything more. In fact, Casey Clausen was injured late in it, stayed in the game but would miss the Georgia game the following week...where Kelley Washington got hurt and would end his Tennessee career. The Vols ended a year that began at #4 in the polls at 8-5.
However, this game and this night itself stands alone, because we'd just never seen anything like it. Our seats were also among my favorites - upper deck on the 30 yard line where all the overtime action happened, row one. There's just something really cool about sitting on the first row of the upper deck. And on this night, we spent almost five hours there.
16. 2002: #10 Tennessee 41 - Arkansas 38 (6 OT) (Knoxville)
After giving up 24 points to Florida in less than five minutes at the end of the first half a few weeks earlier, Tennessee's season was stuck in neutral. Really, the emotion of this game was enough to shake the Vols out of it, but injuries would then take over to put the rest of the year in a tailspin. However, here in the first week of October, a good season was still on the table.
Fittingly, this was the end of an eleven year engagement between the Vols and Arkansas, as the SEC changed their scheduling format in 2003 to leave only one annual contest between East and West foes (Alabama for us). After this one, I'd have been happy to never see these guys again.
That stuck in neutral thought process was certainly in operation early - the Vols led only 10-3 at halftime, and that was our same score when the game moved to the fourth quarter.
Cedric Houston was out with a thumb ligament injury, so the burden of the Vol rushing attack fell squarely on the shoulders of Jabari Davis. And on this night, the J-Train delivered - he motored 58 yards early in the 4th quarter to put the Vols ahead 17-3.
It should've never gotten to overtime. But this was a particularly game and particularly annoying Arkansas team, with Matt Jones at quarterback and the usual Houston Nutt stable of running backs - Cedric Cobbs, Dearrius Howard and Fred Talley. The Pigs would run for 238 yards before the night was over - though as we'll see, the stats are a bit exaggerated in this one.
Arkansas scored with six minutes to play to make it 17-10. Tennessee couldn't run out the clock, but punted and pinned Arkansas back at its own 8 yard line with 3:30 to play. On the very next play, the Vol defense picked a great time to deliver the worst busted coverage I've ever seen in my life - Richard Smith got behind absolutely everyone by about 15 yards, and when the ball left Matt Jones' hand you knew it was touchdown. 92 yards later it was the longest scoring play in Arkansas history, and suddenly the game was tied...and we were off to overtime.
In 2002, the Vols had only played two overtime games - the epic win over Florida in 1998, and a crazy loss to Nick Saban and LSU in Baton Rouge in 2000. But both of those were single overtime games.
In 2001, Arkansas and Ole Miss played what is still the longest game in college football history, seven overtimes with the Razorbacks winning. In 2003, Arkansas would play another 7 OT game against Kentucky. Apparently it's what they do.
But I remember watching Eli Manning and Ole Miss in that 7 OT game in '01 - the longest overtime affair at that point was a mere 4 OT periods - and the drama was so heavy on every play, I told someone that if we ever played one of those, cardiac arrest was sure to follow.
After witnessing it in person several times on this night, I really believe that the most tense situation in all of sports is a college football overtime where the team with the ball first kicks a field goal. What that means is that the game can then end with either team victorious on any given play of the next possession - a touchdown and the offense instantly wins, a turnover and the defense instantly wins, another field goal and we keep playing. On this night, we would see that scenario three different times.
Both teams traded field goals in the first overtime session. Arkansas again kicked in three in the second OT, and when the Vols and Phillip "Hello" Newman lined up to kick again from 31 yards to send the game to a third overtime, you had a unique and almost cruel roller coaster unfold: the kick was partially deflected...but still went in.
You could actually hear the THUD at that end of the field of the ball richocheting off an Arkansas defender's hand, which changed the trajectory of the ball...which then still limped over the crossbar with about two inches to spare ("A crossbar burner", as Ron Franklin would call it). UT fans went through about a thousand emotions in 2.5 seconds...something like "$#!&...wait...YES!!" Onto overtime number three.
You start to think it's gonna be your night after a kick like that one...but then Derrick Tinsley delivered the death sentence that is a turnover in overtime, fumbling on a screen pass. So Arkansas trots out the field goal team once more, for the win...and boy, did Brennan O'Donohoe completely shank it from 38 yards.
In the fourth overtime, both offenses finally quit screwing around. Arkansas scored on a 3rd and goal run from Matt Jones, who clearly had more left in his step than the Tennessee defense as he effortlessly weaved his way through defenders. The two point conversion failed however, and when Clausen hit Tony Brown for a touchdown on the first play of the Vols' offensive possession, Tennessee could win it with the two...but Clausen fired incomplete, and we kept playing.
(On a personal note, my cousin got married on this day, both of my sisters were in the wedding...and I, of course, wasn't at the ceremony. It's not a hard concept, really, for brides in the south - it's what off weeks are for. Even getting married during the two or three throwaway non-conference games every year is acceptable. But don't do it during SEC games, or you will jeopardize relationships. I'm not sure mine has ever been the same with my cousin and her family after this one. In between the fourth and fifth overtimes, I remember how glad I was I'd held my ground and skipped the wedding...and then instantly worrying if God was somehow going to punish me for that with an Arkansas win.)
Fifth overtime, and this time Tennessee scores first, Jabari Davis from 12 yards out. Davis finishes with arguably the best performance of his Tennessee career, 25 carries for 135 yards and 2 TDs. On the two point conversion, Clausen tried to run it in - cause that makes sense - and got leveled at the corner, falling hard on his shoulder and causing the injury that would force him to miss the Georgia game.
Arkansas answered to tie it at 35, and now they had their shot to win on the two point conversion. Matt Jones rolled out but the Vols contained him and then Julian Battle intercepted his pass in the end zone...and we're on to overtime number six.
They just seem like endless details at this point, but if you were there or watching at home, you don't need me to describe how tense every second of this was. There's nothing like college football overtimes once they get to about the third OT period...and they will take years off your life.
Arkansas went backward in the sixth overtime, but then brought on the backup kicker after O'Donnohoe's shank in OT #3, and David Carlton buried a 47 yarder to put the Hogs up 38-35.
I'm not sure if the Vols knew the extent of Clausen's injury at this point or not, but they decided enough was enough: on the first play of Tennessee's offensive possession in the sixth overtime, Clausen fired downfield over the middle for Jason Witten. The Arkansas defender was a hair late, Witten made the grab and then slipped past one defender...and in the blink of an eye, there was the end zone, there was Witten, and it was all over. Dogpile ensues, and Tennessee wins 41-38 in six overtimes.
A 7:45 ESPN kickoff went into Sunday morning, and featured more than 900 yards of total offense and 79 total points. The assumption at this point was that this would be the win that put things together for the Vols, while Arkansas would crumble the way teams usually do after long overtime losses. Instead, Tennessee went 4-4 the rest of the year with a dozen significant injuries. Meanwhile, Arkansas bounced back the very next week to run for 426 yards at Jordan-Hare Stadium - 241 from Fred Talley - in a stunning win at Auburn. The Hogs would go on to win the SEC West in 2002.
This game remains the longest in Tennessee football history, just one OT period behind the all-time college football record (OT began in 1996). While the '02 Vols ultimately just weren't as good or as fortunate as we'd all hoped they'd be, this remains a unique night in Neyland Stadium, and one of the most tense football games I've ever seen.