Twenty years ago, when Notre Dame was still Notre Dame, the Vols and the Irish played what was, at the time, one of the most anticipated games in Neyland Stadium history. Back before Steve Spurrier got his feet under him at Florida (the Vols pounded him 45-3 in his first season with the Gators earlier this year), a good ten years before Georgia would become a threat, and in a year when Alabama was going through ups and downs with first year coach Gene Stallings (including a game against the Vols that we'll get to)...the home date with Notre Dame on November 10, 1990 was one you circled on your calendar as soon as the game was announced.
The Vols and Irish had not seen one another since 1979. Since then, Lou Holtz had come to South Bend and led Notre Dame to a National Championship in his third year in 1988. The Irish finished #2 in the final AP poll in 1989 and came into this game in Knoxville ranked number one. Kids, when you see that crazy old man on ESPN, just remember that at one time, he actually knew what he was talking about.
Notre Dame put a ton of future NFL talent on the field: Rick Mirer at quarterback, Ricky Watters at tailback (with Jerome Bettis also in the backfield), and three future Pro Bowlers on defense with Todd Lyght at corner, and Chris Zorich and Bryant Young at tackle. But the main attraction was Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, the Irish wide receiver who would eventually finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting. This team was absolutely loaded.
But the '90 Vols would give any UT team a run for its money. Despite losing Chuck Webb to a knee injury in the second game of the season, Tennessee was explosive with Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper at wide receiver, and senior Tony Thompson filling in for Webb at tailback. Offensive tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis would both be taken in the Top 10 of the 1991 NFL Draft, and holding it all together was junior quarterback Andy Kelly. The Vols featured Dale Carter in the secondary and current defensive line coach Chuck Smith at end, along with a host of other great Vol defenders. Notre Dame was good...but the Vols were ready, and on this day appeared equal to the task. Tennessee was in the midst of a very strange year, with a record of 5-1-2 coming into this game. But the Vols were in control of their own destiny in the SEC, ranked ninth headed into this one.
I was 9 years old and in attendance that day, and two decades later this game still stands out as one of the most exciting football games I've ever seen. My perspective on it then hasn't changed much now: going back and watching the highlights on the Vols vs. Irish DVD, I still get the sense of how big that opportunity was, how it was one of those games where every play felt like life or death. To play against Notre Dame when that name still meant something, and especially to go against them when they were ranked number one...it was a unique environment, and a huge opportunity for Tennessee...
...and we almost made it happen.
10. 1990: #1 Notre Dame 34 - #9 Tennessee 29 (Knoxville)
I will argue with anyone that the perfect day for football at Neyland Stadium isn't sunny and 75, or the 7:45 primetime kickoff. It's the late afternoon start in October or November, on a gray and overcast day with just enough cold in the air to be called "football weather". As one of my dad's old fraternity brothers who sits on my row in Z11 used to point out, nothing makes the orange stand out like a cloudy, overcast day. And this was one of those days.
With so much firepower on both offenses, the expectation was a shootout. The Vols took the lead in the first quarter with a field goal, but Notre Dame answered back with Rodney Culver sneaking out of the backfield, and Mirer hit him for a 59 yard touchdown. From there, both defenses tightened up for the rest of the half, and two field goals made it 10-6 Irish at the break.
Then the shootout we were all waiting for showed up.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Andy Kelly led the Vols downfield in less than two minutes, and Tony Thompson finished from 15 yards out to put the Vols on top 13-10. Two plays later, Ricky Watters broke through the line, two Vol defenders had him but didn't bring him down, and then Dale Carter whiffed...and Watters had a 66 yard touchdown run.
Not to be outdone, Tennessee again struck quickly: the Vols moved to the Irish 35, and then Kelly looked for Alvin Harper off play action. Todd Lyght couldn't have played it better...and somehow Harper still caught the ball in the end zone, the pigskin arriving a nanosecond before the DB's hand flashed in front of Harper's face. It was the third touchdown in the first five minutes of the third quarter, and the Vols led 20-17.
This time, the lead held, at least for awhile. In the final minutes of the third quarter, a Notre Dame drive stalled inside the UT 10, and the Irish called for Craig Hentrich to kick (yes, that Craig Hentrich who just retired from the Titans last year). Hentrich's kick was good, but the Vols were offsides, and Holtz was faced with the age old question: do you take points off the board?
The answer: you never take points off the board. Holtz did, and on second and goal at the UT 3, Daryl Hardy forced a fumble, and Jeremy Lincoln (a major player in the UT-Notre Dame series) recovered. Tennessee couldn't get off their own goal line, and punted to Ismail from their own end zone...and The Rocket ran it all the way back to the 8 yard line. But again, the Tennessee defense stiffened, the Irish couldn't get in, and this time settled for three for real, tying the game at 20-20 heading to the fourth quarter.
The Vols went on the move again, and with ten minutes left in the game, Greg Burke hit a 45 yard field goal to put Tennessee in front again, 23-20. When the defense held and got the ball back, Tennessee fans could start seriously entertaining victory...
...but pinned back deep in his own territory again, Vol punter Joey Chapman shanked a 20 yarder, and Notre Dame again had excellent field position. There would be no more field goals: Ricky Watters ran it in from ten yards out, putting the Irish back on top 27-23. Still plenty of time left for the Vols, with five minutes on the clock. The nine year old version of me started praying the "God, if you let us win this game, I'll never ask for anything else again" bit.
In the pre-Peyton Manning universe, Andy Kelly rewrote the Tennessee record book on this day: 35 of 60, 399 yards, all UT records at the time. Kelly did a little bit of everything in the final five minutes...and that started with an interception that gave Notre Dame the ball back with under four to play. And any hopes for that prayer to be answered looked to be destroyed completely when Rocket Ismail finally made his big play:
(Yep, that's Notre Dame rocking the T formation.)
As noted in the video, Ismail had 5 carries for -1 yards until that play. The Irish took a 34-23 lead with 3:34 to play, and this thing appeared to be over.
The last three minutes of this game featured some of the finest quarterback play I've ever seen at this university. Andy Kelly led the Vols in the hurry-up, 70 yards with six completions in less than two minutes, including a sideline tightrope catch by Carl Pickens (13 catches on the day, also a school record later tied by Joey Kent) and a teardrop to Alvin Harper from 24 yards out for a touchdown. The Vols went for two and didn't get it, and trailed 34-29 with 1:44 to play.
So here comes the onside kick, a play I can remember working for the Vols exactly twice: once in the last game we discussed, at Alabama last year...and once on this day.
And all of a sudden, prayers were being answered.
The feeling was, in part, similar to the Alabama game last year: playing the number one team, thinking you've got no shot with three minutes to play, and then in a real quick hurry , "ohmygoshwecouldwin." And when Kelly moved the Vols to the Notre Dame 20 in the final minute, it became "ohmygoshwe'regonnawin."
This one, however, would feel even worse...because unlike last year's game with Alabama, Tennessee had every right to be in the game, and had every right to win it. The Vols had the lead four different times in this game, but just couldn't stop the big play, giving up three touchdowns of 40+ yards.
The late score, the onside kick, and the final drive all put 90,000+ on their feet, hearts beating in unified acceleration. Andy Kelly was a winner like no other - when asked about traits of Vol QBs, it's the first one I'd use to describe him, and it fit him better than anyone else - and we were sure he would bring us home. To this day, he's still my favorite Vol QB, just because I wanted to be him when I grew up.
At the 20, with everything on the line and a play away from pure euphoria, Kelly looked for Harper again in the end zone, in a hole in the Irish zone. But this time, the corner playing underneath read it, broke on the ball, and just as Harper was coming free in the end zone...the corner flashed in front coming the other way, and intercepted the pass at the goal line. And the dream was dead. I remember being in the bathroom in the stadium after this, and just crying and crying...and grown men looking at me with a very strong sense that they wanted to cry, too.
It was an incredible football game, one I wish I had something more than just the highlights for. Tennessee stood toe to toe with #1 Notre Dame, and didn't blink until the final minute at the goal line. The Irish would go on to play Colorado for the National Championship (a team Tennessee tied in the first game of this season), with the Irish falling 10-9. The Vols would go on to win the SEC Championship.
This game should probably be higher...but what happened the next year eased our pain just a little bit: