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20 Losses in 20 Years #3 - The Hobnailed Boot

I was in Athens the night the goal posts came down, in October 2000.  After nine straight losses to the Vols dating back to 1989, Georgia finally got the best of Tennessee 21-10 between the hedges.  It was an ugly, out-of-place game:  neither team gained more than 275 yards of offense, both teams turned it over three times, and though the Dawgs had finally gotten their win, Georgia's season was already in trouble.  A preseason top ten, the Dawgs lost to Lou Holtz and South Carolina in week two, and then went 0-3 against Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech down the stretch to finish 8-4, which cost Jim Donnan his job.

Donnan's replacement was Mark Richt, with seven years of experience as Florida State's offensive coordinator on his resume.  He was 40 years old when he took the job, and carried lots of potential.  But that potential was damaged when Holtz and Carolina got the best of Georgia again to open SEC play in 2001.

Meanwhile, Tennessee's rebuilding year was over and the Vols looked like they would return to proper form.  The Florida game was postponed after 9/11, but the Vols beat a good LSU team 26-18 in Knoxville, moving them to #7 in the polls.  Georgia was unranked, had yet to play a road game, and was starting true freshman David Greene at quarterback.

All signs pointed to revenge.

3. 2001 - Georgia 26 - #7 Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)

It certainly felt that way early on:  Kelley Washington, who had set the school record with 11 catches for 256 yards against LSU the week before, got the scoring started with a 7 yard grab from Casey Clausen five minutes in.  Washington would finish the day with 9 catches for 108 yards, the best two game stretch in school history...just one of many storylines that would be lost due to the outcome.

When Clausen hit Leonard Scott from 17 yards away for another score five minutes later, the Vols led 14-3 and everyone in orange was picturing another one of the three-plus-possession victories that Tennessee was so good at delivering against Georgia.

(FUN FACT:  since divisional play began in 1992, Tennessee is 12-6 against Georgia, with eight of those victories coming by 17+ points.)

This is another one of those games where the rest of the details get a little fuzzy at the cost of remembering the ending so clearly.  On the whole, this was an outstanding football game:  371 yards of offense for Georgia and 492 for Tennessee.  But the game turned on a special teams play:  Damien Gary ran a punt back 72 yards for a score in the second quarter, and when that was followed up by Greene hitting Fred Gibson for a score five minutes later, Georgia was in front and we had ourselves a ballgame.

Tennessee tied it at 17-17 going to halftime, and then everything stopped.  No points were scored in the third quarter, and while Tennessee played keep away - the Vols won time of possession by an astounding 18 minutes - they couldn't score to take the lead.  Georgia hung around long enough to give themselves a chance...and in the fourth quarter, they took it.

With less than six minutes to play, Billy Bennett knocked home a 31 yard field goal to give Georgia the lead, 20-17.  Clausen and the Vols came roaring downfield again, picking up a key conversion to move into field goal range.  But on the very next play, Casey Clausen (24 of 40 for 295 yards) threw his only interception of the day, picked off inside the 20 by Terreal Bierria with just 1:53 to play.  Some UT fans started heading for the exits.

Tennessee's defense had to have a three and out.  They got it, burning timeouts and getting the ball back after the punt at their own 15 with 1:20 to play.

For us, the greatest tragedy is that Travis Stephens' performance is lost in time.  People do remember his play at the end of this drive, but only as a precursor to what came next.  Most people don't remember his 176 yards on 30 carries, or the fact that he would've been a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate had this thing gone differently in the final seconds.

Clausen dug Tennessee out of its hole with two completions, placing the ball at the UT 38 with under a minute to play.  Randy Sanders got beat up a lot for going to the screen pass.  But this time, he was brilliant.

I was sitting way up high in the upper deck in the student section for this one, where you can see what's breaking open downfield.  When the Vols dialed up the screen and Stephens pulled it down, you could tell we were in business - remember, we only needed a field goal to force overtime.

But #34 turned upfield and then just kept going, and no one even touched him until the very end, when he was collared down but still managed to cross the goal line for six incredible points.  There are a handful of moments in Neyland Stadium history, a group in which it's hard to quantify exactly the one that was loudest, but you know a play has reached that group when you can't hear your own words come out of your mouth.  This was one of those moments; I was standing on the aisle in the upper deck, jumped into the air when he scored and got bumped by my friend, and came down with one foot on a bleacher and one foot on the I proceeded do that thing where you run so you don't fall, and ran down 10-15 rows to the edge of the upper deck, then turned around and ran back up into a mass of humanity, hugging and high fiving random strangers all along the way.  It was glorious.

And it was worthless.

What's interesting about this loss is that, ultimately, it didn't matter:  when the Vols beat Florida on December 1, we were back in control of our own National Championship destiny, and could've won it all in spite of this game.  And of course, it didn't turn out this way...but had we beaten LSU, this game would've been a little less painful.  And while we were beating Florida, I don't think any of us were lamenting it.

But when it happened...and still today, because we didn't capitalize on our second chance...this one still burns.

You know all the culprits:  the squib kick, the mustang, and Verron Haynes at the end.  But don't forget Randy McMichael (6 catches for 108), who made two huge catches on a drive that started just 59 yards away.  McMichael's first catch went for 27 yards and gave Georgia hope.  The second one went for 14 and put the ball at the UT 5, and took away ours.

It happened so fast it was hard to process it all - I remember simple disbelief that grew stronger with every play (and there weren't many of them), and a helplessness that our defense looked like it was feeling as well on the final play (which was a great call, to their credit).  In less than a minute, we went from celebrating one of the most exciting plays I've ever seen live, to witnessing the second-quickest death I've ever seen (only topped by the next game on our list).

Georgia won, then they stomped on our T, which made me livid.  We'd beaten them like a rented mule for a decade - I felt like they had to earn the right to disrespect us.

But consider what this game did not only for Richt and David Greene (21 of 34 for 303 yards in his first road start as a true freshman in Neyland Stadium...a performance you have to tip your hat to), but the course of this rivalry.  And that's the point:  this game made Tennessee fans treat Georgia like a rival.  And when you felt like you wanted to doubt it when Richt's best team beat the deadly combination of CJ Leak and James Banks by only five points in Athens a year later?  They silenced the notion that they hadn't pulled even with Tennessee for good the next year in Knoxville, a blowout loss that made it four straight for Georgia.

Even though we stunned them the next year, and even though we've put 90s-esque wins of 18, 21, and 26 points on them three of the last four years, it's still not what it was before.  They've become a true rival, which was not possible until this game.

Afterword - On Larry Munson and Announcing

I did play-by-play for Alcoa High School football from 2002-2004.  The first year, Alcoa had an incredibly talented group of freshmen that the coaching staff elected to play right away, including Brandon Warren and Dustin Lindsey.  Alcoa took their lumps and went 3-7 that year.  Two years later, those kids took all that experience and won the first of now six consecutive state championships.

But late in that first year, we were calling a game in Wartburg (heard of it?) that Alcoa had to have to make the playoffs.  After I botched a call, our color commentator/statistician said on the air, "You'll have to excuse us, the cold has made us a little retarded."  No one ever said anything about it.

Later in that game, an Alcoa player committed personal foul penalties on consecutive plays, on a drive which ended up giving Wartburg the points they needed to win.  After the second late hit, the same guy said, "That's just a stupid penalty."  Which, obviously, it was.  And we got called into the principal's office on Monday morning over that one, chastised for saying anything negative about Alcoa.   

So I get it.  I get that some announcers, especially on the high school and college level, are homers, even to a fault, because that's what people want to hear.  And that's fine - Bert Bertelkamp is the best announcer wearing a Vol Network headset, and I love his show of love and emotion for Tennessee Basketball, because you can tell he cares.

Larry Munson cares too.  And you can see both the highlights of this game and hear his entire call of the final drive here.  I don't at all mind his use of "we" and "us" in describing Georgia - I write about Tennessee using the same words.

As for his famous call at the end?  Well, if you're a Georgia fan you love it...and if you're a Tennessee fan, you of course hate it.  Was it unprofessional?  Probably.

(And add this to the list of reasons why John Ward is the best at that job, ever:  as much as he cared about Tennessee and as much excitement as he conveyed, he never crossed the line into unprofessionalism.)

But I also know that there's something special about college football and the way it draws out emotions unlike any other sport...and that call was also Munson being Munson.  Georgia fans are allowed to love it...and we're allowed to call it unprofessional.

(Let me also say that if I was a Georgia fan, I would've loved it.  Longtime Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most let loose with what has to be the best tirade against another team by an announcer...and I think that's awesome.)