In short, he was well on his way to another nondescript punting performance ... until fate intervened. When Auburn's return man failed to field to the kick before it hit the ground, the ball took a fortuitous bounce, then rolled ... and rolled ... and rolled. When it finally came to rest it had traveled 57 yards and Cunningham had flipped the field position (Vol 23-yard line to Tiger 20).
With 80 yards to the end zone and only 52 seconds to get there, Auburn elected to run out the first-half clock rather than try to expand its 14-6 lead. Thus, that 57-yard punt may have kept the Vols in the game.
What that punt did for Tennessee, however, was nothing compared to what it did for Cunningham's psyche. Consider:
His first punt of the second half was a 45-yarder that pinned Auburn on its own 4-yard line. His second punt was a coffin-corner masterpiece that traveled just 34 yards but went out of bounds at the Tiger 2-yard line. His third punt of the second half was a "pooch kick" fair-caught at the Auburn 12-yard line. His fourth punt carried 52 yards. His fifth, a 40-yarder, came within a whisker of being downed at the Auburn 1-yard line. His final punt of the game, a 47-yarder, was downed at the Auburn 5.
Clearly, Cunningham's in-game turnaround could be traced to that bounce-aided 57-yarder just before halftime. It wasn't a boomer but it may have been a career-saver.
"I didn't hit it well but I got a good roll," he recalled. "It definitely gave me momentum into the second half. I needed a spark, and I knew that for us to be in the game in the second half I was going to have to punt well and win the field-position battle."
Ironically, Cunningham's work in Games 1, 2 and 3 had been so mediocre that head coach Phillip Fulmer last week declared the first-team punting job up for grabs. Though disappointed, Cunningham found the announcement to be motivational.
"It definitely was because nobody wants to lose their spot," he recalled. "It puts a little more spark inside of you to keep going. Everybody's going to go through adversities. It's just how you take on those adversities and respond that (determines) ultimately what happens in the end."
Cunningham clearly was a different kicker after the 57-yarder than he was before it. So, what changed?
"I wasn't doing anything different. I don't know how to answer that," he said. "Maybe I was more prepared. I guess it was Coach (Fulmer) coming out and saying those things that gave me that extra fire to get out there and play well."
Odds are, this Saturday night's game with Northern Illinois will be Cunningham's last as the No. 1 punter for 2008. Three-year starter Britton Colquitt – rated the top punter in college football by many analysts – will be back for Game 6 at Georgia after serving a five-game disciplinary suspension related to a string of DUI arrests.
If Saturday night's game is Cunningham's last shot for '08, however, he's determined to go out with a bang.
"I've just got to do the best I can," he said. "If Britton comes back and he's The Man, so be it."
Only a sophomore, Cunningham will be back for 2009 and 2010. Thus, his quality work against Auburn last weekend should provide a springboard for his Volunteer future.
"This is definitely going to push me off for next season and give me great practice and game time heading into next season," he said.
Cunningham believes the fact he got to punt against Southeastern Conference powers Florida (Game 3) and Auburn (Game 4) this fall has helped him tremendously.
"It's huge," he said. "I'm playing SEC games now. Last year I didn't get to punt in an SEC game. It's a totally different ball game than a non-conference game. It's going to give me great momentum for next year."
Incredibly, one week after being called out by the head coach for his poor play, Chad Cunningham finds himself being singled out as one of Tennessee's most improved players. Obviously, he accomplished an amazing turnaround in a span of just seven days.
"I feel good right now," he said, grinning broadly. "A loss is a loss but, as far as my performance, I did fairly well in the second half. Mentally, I feel good."