Cutcliffe was the voice of experience having suffered a seven overtime defeat to Arkansas last season in Oxford which stands as the longest game in NCAA history.
Tonight Tennessee and Arkansas nearly equaled that memorable marathon, slugging it out for six scintillating sudden death stanzas at Neyland Stadium. The game that time forgot finally came to a climatic conclusion four minutes before midnight when Casey Clausen tossed a 25-yard touchdown pass over the middle to tight end Jason Witten on Tennessee's first play of the sixth overtime period, lifting the Vols to a 41-38 victory over the Razorbacks.
The fantastic finish seemed like a farfetched fantasy with 10 minutes to go in the game and the Vols in control of the football and a 17-3 lead. But UT failed to hold on to either and a Razorback offense that had failed to score a touchdown against the Vols defense in nearly two complete contests, or just over 113 minutes of game time, reached the promised land twice in a span of 3:26 of the fourth quarter to level the score.
The tying TD was scored on the longest play from scrimmage in Arkansas football history, as quarterback Matt Jones bought time on the scramble before finding Richard Smith all alone behind Tennessee's secondary for a 92-yard score with 3:30 left in the game. Tennessee's ensuing possession stalled near midfield and, following a Dustin Colquitt punt, Arkansas ran out the rest of the clock to send the game to OT.
That's when Cutcliffe's words came back to haunt Fulmer whose injury riddled squad was faced with the daunting task of containing Jones and covering Arkansas' receivers on a short field.
At 6-5, 225, Jones doesn't look particularly elusive but his talent for making tacklers miss is as uncanny as is mobility is amazing. The problems containing Jones were compounded by a UT defense that was experiencing attrition at an alarming rate.
Coach John Chavis' troops entered the game having lost it's top three playmakers to season-ending knee injuries. That trio includes: defensive end Constantine Ritzmann and linebackers Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon. Ritzmann's replacement Karlton Neal was also unavailable after recently undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Additionally, UT had three of it's four secondary starters sidelined at critical stretches of the fourth quarter. When the Vols blew coverage on Smith's 92-yard touchdown Rashad Baker, Jabari Greer and Willie Miles were all being treated for injuries.
On offense, Tennessee (4-1, 1-1) was without starting tailback Cedric Houston, an Arkansas native who had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb last week. Starting guard Anthony Herrera was also lost during the game with a knee sprain that will be evaluated further. With so many projected starters and key reserves missing in action, Tennessee was forced to play true freshmen on both sides of the ball. Such talented rookies as Parys Harralson, J.T. Mapu, James Banks, Jonathan Wade, Rob Smith and Gerald Riggs logged significant reps against the Razorbacks, showing signs of their athletic potential in addition to the vagaries of youth.
"Our team came together tonight," Fulmer said in an interview broadcast by the Vol Network. "We played a lot closer to Tennessee football. We had a lot of people banged up and a lot of young people, but they hung in there and showed their character."
Fulmer was also pleased the Vols established the semblance of a running game, as Tennessee gained a season-high 190 yards on the ground and may have discovered a tailback in the process.
"I think we found a tailback," Fulmer said.
Jabari "J-Train" Davis rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns in 25 carries against Arkansas, including a 58-yard TD gallop with 14:03 remaining that gave the Vols a 14-point cushion. On that run to daylight, Davis got a clearing block on the corner from Witten and raced untouched down the sideline with the entire Arkansas secondary giving chase, but not closing ground.
Davis scored the game's first touchdown in the second quarter on a power run from the 3. He also dashed 11-yards in the fifth overtime period, but fumbled before crossing the goal-line. Fullback Troy Fleming fell on the ball in the end zone for a score that put the Vols ahead in the taunt competition that saw six lead changes in overtime.
In the second overtime, Phillip Newman's field goal from 31-yards was deflected at the line, but had enough on it to crawl over the upright sending the game to OT No. 3.
Once again the Hogs jumped in front on Matt Jones five-yard run, but misfired on the mandatory two-point conversion attempt leaving the door open for the Vols. Tennessee struck back on its first play when Clausen connected with a wide open Tony Brown for a 25-yard TD. However the Vols two-point pass attempt fell incomplete.
Likewise the Vols failed to convert following Fleming's fortuitous fumble recovery in the fourth overtime, as Clausen's quarterback draw was sniffed out and stuffed by the Razorbacks.
Again Arkansas (2-2, 0-2) rallied behind the rugged running of tailback De'Arrius Howard who scored on a one-yard carry to knot the count at 35. Jones' pass for the game-winning two-pointer was picked off by Julian Battle.
In the sixth and deciding overtime, the Vols defense reached down deep and found the energy to shove Arkansas back seven yards on three plays. However the resilient Razorbacks hit a 47-yard field goal to assume the short-lived edge and set the stage for the Clausen-to-Witten game winner.
Clausen finished the game 19-of-28 for 291 yards, two TDs and one interception. Kelley Washington led UT's receivers with six catches for 112 yards. Witten had three receptions for 78 yards and a TD.
When the smoke finally settled on this classic SEC struggle, the stats underscored just how close the competition was. Tennessee finished with 453 net yards to Arkansas' 449 and had the ball for 30:45 in regulation to the Razorbacks 29:15.
After playing each other annually for 11 straight seasons, highlighted by several implausible encounters, the Vols and Hogs aren't scheduled to meet again until the 2006 season.
Of course, after surviving Saturday's six-overtime saga, many Tennessee fans may feel four years is soon enough.