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100 Days of Vols #18 - Stumble and Fumble

Sometimes you need a big play. And sometimes you get it.

SBNation has not traveled back to '98 and gotten a picture of Billy Ratliff, so you get a guy with a rifle instead.
SBNation has not traveled back to '98 and gotten a picture of Billy Ratliff, so you get a guy with a rifle instead.

Yesterday, we looked at an array of memorable calls from the legendary John Ward. Today it is only appropriate that, as promised months ago, we return to what is hands down the most legendary Vol call from any other announcer. (If I'm forgetting one, feel free to interject in the comments. But I don't think I am). Yesterday's article was littered with chillbump-inducing calls, but right there with them is Sean McDonough's famous "Stoerner. . . LOST THE FOOTBALL! Oh my goodness! He stumbled and fumbled! And Billy Ratliff recoverd!"

No national title comes easy. In every championship season, there's a moment where everything teeters on a precipice. . . and doesn't fall. For Tennessee, that moment came on November 14, 1998. Behind two touchdowns from Clint Stoerner to Anthony Lucas, Arkansas jumped out to a 21-3 lead on a rainy late autumn Saturday. Lucas would go for 172 yards on the day, but it was not until the following year that he was able to beat the Vols (aside: it's a shame that injuries ended his NFL career before it started. I would've loved to see more of him when it wasn't against Tennessee). While the Vols were able to chip away behind the running of Travis Henry, who led Tennessee to 222 yards on the ground, the home team still trailed 24-22 with time running out on the game.

Fortunately, Tennessee had the ball with two minutes remaining, just twenty yards from the field goal range of clutch kicker Jeff Hall. After narrow wins over Syracuse and Florida and a rally from down 18 in the first half of this game, it looked as though a team of destiny would strike once more.

But on first down, Henry got just one yard. On second down, Tee Martin dropped three steps and immediately chucked the ball into the stands. On third down, Martin threw behind an open Cedric Wilson. Suddenly, destiny was on hold, and Tennessee needed to convert on 4th and 9. They didn't. Martin found Peerless Price streaking across the middle of the field, but Price was covered closely and was unable to make the catch.

It seemed destiny had failed the Vols. The season was teetering over the edge, a breath from crashing entirely. All Arkansas needed was one first down to win the game. And even if they couldn't manage that, the best Tennessee could hope for was the ball deep in their own territory and under a minute for an out-of-sync passing game to get into field goal range.

That was when the unbelievable happened. On second down, Clint Stoerner dropped back, but Billy Ratliff exploded off the line and pushed all-SEC offensive guard Brandon Burlsworth backwards into his quarterback. Burlsworth stepped on Stoerner's foot, and Stoerner reached out to brace himself--and lost the football. You know the rest. And if you don't, read our 95th day of Vols. Tennessee handed to Travis Henry, and Tennessee handed to Travis Henry, and Tennessee handed to Travis Henry, and Tennessee won. The season was pulled back from the precipice, and the march to the national title rolled on.

People look back on these game and see it as the lucky break that got the Vols I title. I dislike this view, for two reasons. First, it was an unlucky break that put Tennessee behind the eight-ball in the first place. Barely a minute earlier, Arkansas was penalized for illegal kicking inside their own 10 on 4th down. Illegal kicking carries a penalty from the spot of the foul and a loss of down. That should've given Tennessee a first and goal down 24-20. Instead, the Vols were awarded a safety, and instead of needing five yards for a touchdown, they needed 20 yards (after a big return) to get into field goal range. Second, if a defensive lineman manages to push an offensive lineman into his own quarterback, said defender should get full credit for making an outstanding football play and should not be looked on as the recipient of a lucky break.

But, lucky or not, it brought the season back from the brink, and Vols fans will continue getting chills from the words "he stumbled and fumbled."

Video (start at 1:44:05 for shots of sad Vols to set the mood):

(Final aside: this game is partially responsible for my favorite conspiracy theory of all-time. Spoiler: Tennessee used super-secret government technology to win the national championship and save the BCS.)