Fantastic finishes

Seven weeks before The Knoxville Journal folded, it sent me to South Bend to cover the 1991 Tennessee-Notre Dame football game. I didn't know I was about to lose my job. I didn't know I was about to witness one of the greatest games of all time, either.

Johnny Majors' Volunteers rallied from a 31-7 deficit to beat Lou Holtz' Fighting Irish 35-34 in a game Big Orange Country fans still recall as "The Miracle in South Bend." To this day, I have never seen another team dominated so thoroughly in the first half come back to win in the second half.

After Tennessee rallied frantically to take a one-point lead, Notre Dame marched into field-goal position in the final seconds. Vol cornerback Jeremy Lincoln, rushing from the outside position, broke through so cleanly that he overran the kick, which deflected off his rear end just enough to miss the uprights.

Never one to pass up a wisecrack, I concluded my Journal game story by noting that Tennessee's win was "ugly ... butt ugly."

Apparently, I'm not the only person who remains intrigued by that fantastic finish. Pete Fiutak of collegefootballnews.com mentions the '91 Vol-Irish game in his ongoing series called "The 100 greatest finishes of all time." He ranks it No. 78. Frankly, I can't imagine there were 77 finishes more exciting than that one ... but, hey, it's Pete's list.

Fiutak has posted picks 71 through 100 thus far. He ranks Tennessee's come-from-behind win at Syracuse that launched the Vols' march to the 1998 national title No. 94 among the greatest finishes ever.

Here's what he has to say about those two dramatic Vol victories:

No. 78  Tennessee 35 ... Notre Dame 34, November 9, 1991

At the time: Notre Dame shook off an early season loss to Michigan to win seven straight for an 8-1 record heading into the showdown with Tennessee for the 300th game played at Notre Dame Stadium. The 13th ranked Vols started off 4-0 before losing to Florida and Alabama. A win over Memphis turned things around a bit, but they needed a big win to get back on track.

The setup: Things couldn't have been going worse for Tennessee, getting down 31-7 late in the first half when Irish PK Craig Hentrich lined up for a 32-yard field goal with :40 to play. The kick was blocked and picked up by Floyd Miley for an 85-yard Volunteer touchdown. The UT defense dominated the second half, while Aaron Hayden scored two fourth quarter touchdowns for an improbable 35-34 lead with just over four minutes to go. Rick Mirer and the Notre Dame offense finally got going, moving the ball to the Tennessee nine-yard line with four seconds to play.

The ending: Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz had to put in backup kicker Rob Leonard to replace an injured Hentrich for the final 27-yard field goal attempt. Leonard kicked it squarely, but UT's Jeremy Lincoln flew in and appeared to dive past the play. The ball bounced off Lincoln's butt and was pushed wide as time ran out.

How they ended up: Tennessee went on a great run to close out the year. The Notre Dame win was the second in a five-game winning streak before losing 42-17 to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl for a 9-3 record. Notre Dame got blasted 35-13 by the Nittany Lions the following week before beating Hawaii and then Florida in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-3.

No. 94  Tennessee 34 ... Syracuse 33, September 5, 1998

At the time: It was the season opener for each team. Tennessee was in game one following the Peyton Manning era, while Syracuse and quarterback Donovan McNabb were trying to get off to a big start after closing out 1997 with eight straight wins before a Fiesta Bowl loss to Kansas State.

The setup: In an exciting see-saw game, Syracuse got a late 19-yard field goal for a 33-31 lead and an apparent victory. Jamal Lewis had rushed for 141 yards for the Vols, but new starting quarterback Tee Martin struggled despite running for a touchdown and throwing two scores to Peerless Price. Martin would get one final drive to try to make amends for a rocky start.

The ending: Helped by a questionable pass interference call on fourth down to keep the drive alive, Martin coolly and calmly lead the Volunteers into field goal position. With the Carrier Dome crowd roaring, Jeff Hall connected on a 27-yard field goal as time ran out.

How they ended up: Syracuse overcame the heartbreaker to shock Michigan 38-28 in the Big House. Despite losses to NC State and West Virginia, the Orangemen ended up in the BCS losing 31-10 to Florida in the Orange Bowl. Tennessee had a dream season winning tight games with Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi State to get to the Fiesta Bowl against Florida State for the national title. The Vols won 23-16.


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