Kicking game big for UT

Phillip Fulmer made two crucial decisions regarding the kicking game in Saturday's game at Alabama. The first succeeded brilliantly and helped win the game; the second failed miserably and nearly lost it.

Down 20-13 with 3:30 to play, Tennessee faced a fourth-and-five at its own 26-yard line. Should the Vols go for the first down or punt and trust their defense to stop the Tide? Fulmer opted to punt.

''We had the timeouts, so you play the percentages,'' he said. ''You can try fourth-and-five and not make it. The percentages are with you stopping them and getting the ball back.''

The percentages came through ... but just barely. Dustin Colquitt punted 47 yards and out of bounds, stopping the clock with 3:17 to go and the ball on Bama's 27-yard line. Ray Hudson rambled 18 yards on the Tide's first-down play but a holding call took back 10 of the yards, leaving Bama facing 1st-and-2. Three smashes into the line left the Tide two inches short of a first down. With two more inches, Bama would've foiled Fulmer's strategy and sealed the victory.

The Tide punted the ball back to Tennessee, which promptly raced 87 yards in nine plays to score a touchdown that tied the score at 20-all with just 17 seconds left in regulation.

That's when Fulmer made his second kicking-game decision, one which backfired.

Two years ago, in a similar situation against Georgia, the Vol head man called for a squib kick. Alex Walls' kick was fielded by an ''up man and returned'' to the Bulldog 41-yard line, from which point Georgia launched a 59-yard, game-winning drive in the final 44 seconds of play.

Perhaps remembering that misadventure, Fulmer opted for the ''bloop kick'' vs. Bama instead of the squib. It nearly proved disastrous. Tyrone Prothro fielded the kickoff near the Tide 20-yard line, found a gaping hole in UT's kick coverage team and appeared headed for a dramatic game-winning touchdown return ... until kickoff man James Wilhoit grabbed him by the facemask. Prothro hit the turf at the Vol 47-yard line but the ensuing 15-yard facemask penalty moved Bama to the UT 32-yard line with nine seconds left in regulation. A four-yard run by Shaud Williams moved the ball to the 28, setting up Brian Bostick's potential game-winning 45-yard field goal. Fortunately for the Vols, he missed, sending the game into overtime.

In retrospect, Fulmer insists the bloop kick was a sound call. All that was wrong with it, he says, was the execution.

''It was a poor kick,'' he said. ''It was not as high as it needed to be and much too deep. The object is to NOT have a return.''

Wilhoit muffed the kickoff but he atoned somewhat by bringing Prothro to the turf, albeit using illegal methods. Did Wilhoit save a game-winning touchdown?

''I don't think so,'' Fulmer said. ''We had another guy back there to make the tackle.''

So, Tennessee's head man made two crucial kicking-game decisions in the final 3:30 of regulation that helped set up the dramatic finish.

''The punt worked,'' Fulmer surmised. ''The bloop kick didn't.''

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