The outcome of most football games is decided by a half-dozen or so crucial plays. One team makes these plays and wins; the other team doesn't and loses.
The Tennessee Vols are making the crucial plays this season, and that's why they will beat South Carolina Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
In Game 1 vs. Fresno State, Tennessee scored on its first possession thanks in large part to a spectacular 36-yard catch by James Banks. Early in the second quarter, Jabari Davis found a crease at left guard and raced 44 yards to another touchdown. Each time an opportunity arose, Tennessee exploited it. Later in the same game, clinging to a 14-0 lead, Tennessee needed a key stop when Fresno advanced to the Vol 13-yard line. Three plays later, the Bulldogs were punting from the 37-yard line on fourth-and-34.
Tennessee made the key plays, Fresno didn't. Tennessee won the game, Fresno didn't.
Game 2 vs. Marshall was more of the same.
Down 7-0 early in the second quarter, Tennessee's Casey Clausen caught Marshall in a blitz and hit Banks with a short slant pass that produced a game-tying 24-yard touchdown. Then, trailing 10-7 with just 26 seconds left to halftime, Tennessee made two clutch plays that turned the game around. One play after Rashad Baker returned a punt 35 yards, Clausen found Tony Brown with a 27-yard TD strike to give the Vols a lead they never relinquished. A 50-yard run by Cedric Houston set up an insurance touchdown in the third quarter and James Wilhoit tacked on two clutch field goals in the final 6:00.
Tennessee made the key plays, Marshall didn't. Tennessee won the game, Marshall didn't.
The Vols continued to make the crucial plays last weekend at Florida.
Clausen had a prayer answered when he found Banks with a 48-yard Hail Mary pass on the final play of the first half, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 7-3 halftime lead. The Vols widened the gap to seven when Wilhoit nailed a huge 51-yard field goal, then broke the game open when Clausen hit freshman Bret Smith with a 41-yard pass to the Florida 1-yard line. These were the kind of big plays Florida historically makes to beat Tennessee. This time the Vols turned the tables.
There is no better example of clutch plays winning games than the Tennessee-South Carolina series. The Vols have swept the last 10 meetings, largely because they make the key plays when they desperately need them.
• 2000: Down 14-10 and facing a third-and-14 at midfield with 4:00 left to play, Clausen hit Donte' Stallworth with a 23-yard strike, sustaining a drive that eventually produced a touchdown and a 17-14 Vol victory.
• 2001: With Carolina facing a third-and-goal at the Vol 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, the Vols stopped 250-pound Andrew Pinnock in his tracks, forcing the Gamecocks to settle for a game-tying (10-10) field goal. Tennessee then scored the game-winning touchdown by marching 70 yard in 12 plays -- the key play being a 32-yard strike from Clausen to Bobby Graham on third-and-21.
• 2002: Carolina had a ton of momentum after scoring to pull within 12-10 in the fourth quarter at Columbia. Tennessee promptly quieted the crowd and sealed the victory by driving 90 yards in 17 plays to prevail 18-10.
These games haunt Lou Holtz to this day, particularly the 2001 heartbreaker.
''We don't convert third-and-one; Tennessee converts third-and-21 ... then takes it in and scores in the fourth quarter,'' Carolina's head man mused. ''Tennessee has made a lot of plays, and they always seem to make the big ones.''
Holtz says his players have lost so many tough games to the Big Orange that they now have a stigma about Tennessee which leads them to think ''Here we go again,'' whenever the Vols launch one of their game-winning, fourth-quarter drives.
Although he's known for his poormouthing, Lou could be right in this instance. Maybe the Vols have gotten into the Gamecocks' heads the way the Florida Gators got into the Vols's heads in the 1990s. Nothing that's happened the last three years would suggest otherwise. Carolina typically plays well enough to be close entering the final minutes, but Tennessee always makes a play or series of plays to seal the victory.
Considering this trend, South Carolina's lame passing attack and Tennessee's sterling second-half play last weekend at Florida, the Vols should be virtual locks this Saturday night.
For Whom the Cock Crows?
by Jeffery Stewart
So it's four weeks into the 2003 collegiate football campaign and what do we know with any degree of certainty?
Well, after watching No. 6 Kansas State lose at home to unranked and twice-defeated Marshall, No. 9 Pittsburgh upset by Toledo, No. 21 Alabama lose to Northern Illinois in Tuscaloosa and No. 5 and defending national champion Ohio State struggle to a 24-17 victory over Bowling Green in Columbus, it's safe to say the MAC is a little tougher than most believed.
Throw in No. 3 Michigan's loss to Oregon and No. 7 Georgia's setback at No. 11 LSU, and we could fairly contend top-10 teams are an endangered species. And that's just from last week's game slate.
Texas was also an esteemed member of that elite list at No. 5 before Arkansas, 15-point underdogs, came to Austin and hogtied the Longhorns. No. 2 Miami needed to overcome a 23-point second-half deficit to stave off the Florida Gators in the Orange Bowl.
When we connect the dots the only thing we can really conclude is that parity has come to college football; equality is reality and and the cliche "on any given Saturday" is now an understatement.
That alone is enough to justify the potential for an upset this Saturday, but wait there's more. South Carolina is 3-1 with a 31-7 loss to Georgia and a 31-7 victory over Virginia. Last week the Gamecocks played their best offensive game of the season, beating UAB 42-10 after compiling a 28-0 advantage at intermission. USC had good balance on offense with 214 yards rushing and 208 passing while holding the Trail Blazers to 229 total yards.
South Carolina was led by freshman back Demetris Summers who had 161 yards on 21 carries with three touchdowns, including scoring runs of 54 and 21 yards. Recruitniks probably recall Summers was regarded as one of the two best backs in the nation as a high school senior and was a prospect the Vols pursued vigorously. He is likely the best back Tennessee has seen this season given his combination of strength and big-play ability. That makes him particularly difficult to defend as UT will have to very disciplined within its aggressive style. That means the Vols must maintain their run lanes to reduce cutback opportunties while preventing Summers from getting to the perimeter where he is doubly dangerous.
The first thing to break down on defense when a team isn't focused is discipline. And a letdown after going on the road and beating Florida and before traveling to Auburn next week would only be natural.
The 2001 SEC Championship game against LSU fell between the Vols first victory in Gainesville since 1971 and an anticipated first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1945. Big Orange fans don't have to be reminded how Tennessee couldn't keep the Tigers from moving the football even after LSU lost its starting backfield. Tennessee just seemed to lose its focus, then it lost momentum, a 17-7 lead, the game, the SEC title and a shot at the national title.
If Tennessee could have a letdown with that much on the line, how do we know they might not do the same thing with a lot less to risk? In fact, a letdown after the Florida game has been the norm regardless the outcome. After losing to Florida 23-21 in 1999, the defending national champion Volunteers needed a last minute desperation pass completion to beat Memphis in Knoxville on homecoming. In 2000 the Vols lost a close decision at home to Florida and then lost their next two SEC games. Last year after losing to Florida in Knoxville, the Vols trailed Rutgers at halftime in their next game before rallying to a win.
Even though South Carolina has lost 10 in a row to Tennessee and is 0-11 at Neyland Stadium, the Gamecocks play a style of football that can keep the game close. That's the key for an underdog like S.C. to stay close and hope to turn a late-game break into an upset. Lou Holtz will play for field position and try to control the ball and clock. The Gamecocks will run some down the line option directed by a 245-pound quarterback (Dondrial Pinkins) who is a greater running threat than any QB the Vols have seen this season.
It's true South Carolina isn't an outstanding passing team at this point, but the Gamecocks average 198 yards per game through the air compared to Tennessee's 209 yards per contest. That's hardly the type of gap that would suggest the Vols own a vastly superior advantage through the air. The same is true of the overall offense: S.C. is producing 380 yards a game while Tennessee is averaging 421.
There's not a real statistical gap on defense either, but South Carolina is second in the SEC in total defense, allowing 261 yards a game while Tennessee is sixth in the league, giving up 268 yards per game.
These teams also share something else in common as both the Gamecocks and Vols were devastated by injuries in 2002. South Carolina started off last year 5-2, but dropped its last five contests after injuries — costing them players for a grand total of 1,289 days — eventually took their toll. This South Carolina squad is less than two years removed from back-to-back Outback Bowl victories of Ohio State.
And if that's not enough to convince you that South Carolina is a dangerous opponent consider that this is the earliest the Vols have played the Gamecocks during their current double digit win streak. Usually this game is played the week of Halloween. Why is that significant you ask? The answer is simple: The other contests were waged at a time when South Carolina's lack of depth was starting to show. The last five games between these schools were also scheduled on the ninth straight week that the Gamecocks played without a bye. After a bench-clearing victory over UAB and with an off week up next, South Carolina will be clearly focused, highly motivated, well rested and ready to rumble.
If No. 8 Tennessee isn't ready to knock heads on Saturday night, they could well be scratching their heads on Sunday morning and wondering what went wrong.