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100 Days of Vols #52 - A Football Miracle

From "Oh, it's a blowout," to an all-time great game, the Miracle at South Bend will forever be remembered as one of the most improbable wins in UT history.

Carl Pickens and the Vols Stunned the Irish With An Improbable Comeback
Carl Pickens and the Vols Stunned the Irish With An Improbable Comeback
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

A 12-year-old kid rushed off the football field behind Flintville Junior High School to anxiously ask his father about the game that mattered most that day.

Nevermind that we'd just won our Pee Wee football game. That didn't matter. I was more concerned about the score of the 13th-ranked Vols' game against No. 5 Notre Dame in South Bend. We'd taped the game, but I just couldn't wait to watch it. I had to know the score right then and there.

A solemn-faced Dad provided the news: "Oh, it's a blowout. It's a slaughter," he said, or at least that's what I vividly remember him saying on that chilly day in 1991. "Right now, it's 24-7, and Notre Dame is driving again." When he informed me it was only the second quarter, that twisted the knife a little more. Yeah, the Irish scored again, racing to an inexplicable 31-7 lead over a very salty Tennessee team. Remember, you Vols fans my age and older, this UT defense featured studs like Chuck Smith, Shazzon Bradley, Chris Mims, Darryl Hardy and Ernest Fields.

I was hurt and stunned. I'd not be watching that football game, after all. Instead, I'd go outside, shoot basketball and just forget there ever was a game. I wasn't watching a massacre like that.

That was one of the biggest mistakes I'd make as a UT fan. Thankfully, we had it left to watch on the VCR, but we went about our daily business and walked from my house to my Uncle Billy's to say hi to everybody who'd assembled to watch the game. By the time we'd gotten there, Tennessee was driving for the go-ahead score in one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Volunteer history.

WHAT? The Vols were winning? And I missed it? I remember being more numb, possibly, than the fans who sat in snowy, storied Notre Dame Stadium through single-digit weather and spitting snow.

The Fighting Irish -- with All-World star Rocket Ismail and a cast of many future NFL stars like Jerome Bettis -- were setting up for yet another field goal at the end of the first half, a kick that would have made it 34-7. Instead, Tennessee's Darryl Hardy blocked the kick and Floyd Miley ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown, igniting the rally. An Andy Kelly-toVon Reeves bootleg pass closed the gap to 10 points in the third quarter, but future Tennessee Titans punter Craig Hentrich boots a field goal, and it's 34-21 Irish ... still a pretty imposing lead entering the final frame.

Turns out, Hentrich had hurt his leg on the blocked field goal before the half ... and he may not be quite 100 percent. That wound up being pretty big news later on.

In the fourth quarter, Tennessee takes the ball and drives down the field. With their backs against the wall, the Vols go for it on fourth down and get it. On the very next play, running back Aaron Hayden -- who had a very big day -- gets into the end zone to cut the lead to 34-28. Johnny Majors doesn't want to give back momentum so when UT is driving again, Majors elects to go for it on fourth down from inside Notre Dame's 20. But Kelly throws an incomplete pass intended for Carl Pickens -- who'd gotten his 100th catch of his career earlier in the game.

That's seemingly it. The Irish have survived. But the great Dale Carter intercepted a pass from the not-so-great Rick Mirer, and UT takes over at midfield. A few plays later, Kelly finds Hayden on a screen pass for a 30-yard, go-ahead touchdown. The irreplaceable John Ward's call:

"Tennessee anticipates the blitz, and there, untouched, streaks the freshman from Detroit City, and Tennessee has tied the game at 34."

The extra point is good and all of a sudden, Notre Dame has done something it hadn't done in the 103 years of Irish football and especially not in the 300 games played at Notre Dame Stadium: blown a 24-point lead. But the Irish drive down Larry Lacewell's Vols' throats, getting all the way to UT's 17-yard line. Instead of Hentrich, however, Lou Holtz sends out backup Rob Leonard. Even at his worst, Ward still made a memory with the mis-call.

"The kick is up, the kick is ....GOOD! No, IT IS NO GOOD! IT IS NO GOOD! IT IS NO GOOD! TENNESSEE BEATS NOTRE DAME 35 TO 34. TENNESSEE GOES HOME VICTORIOUS! Notre Dame goes with a sophomore replacement kicker, and it is NO GOOD!"

Here's the video of it here. Jeremy Lincoln's butt was perhaps the most valuable Vol that day. As Notre Dame lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt -- after all that! -- Lincoln blocked the kick with his rear-end, giving UT an improbable 35-34 win. We celebrated wildly around my Uncle Billy's living room. Then, I went home and watched the game -- the entire game -- that I'd thankfully taped.

It was an all-timer. Tennessee thumped the mystique, blocked it without our butts and blew the Irish out of the water on their turf. As Sports Illustrated's William Reed so eloquently put -- and Lincoln so colorfully added to:

But this was to be a day when fate had a Southern drawl and danced to the tune of Rocky Top, the Tennessee theme that the Volunteers' band plays a zillion times a game. Almost as soon as Leonard's foot hit the ball on the kick that would propel him into Irish immortality, Tennessee's Jeremy Lincoln got just enough of it—with his butt, of all things—to knock the ball off course. Nobody could believe it, least of all Lincoln, a senior defensive back from Toledo. "I went up to my mom after the game," he said, "and thanked her for giving me such a big behind."

Another brilliant quote from that story came from UT defender Shazzon Bradley:

"They say there's a Notre Dame god. Well, there must be a Tennessee god, too."

And, finally, a memorable finale from Tom Myslinski:

"If he had been kicking toward Touchdown Jesus, he probably would have made it."

Alas, Leonard wasn't, and he didn't. And I'll never forget the result. It's one of my all-time UT memories.