As always when the summer begins the change to fall, an excitement builds within each football fan. The thoughts of a new season take over and the butterflies enter their stomachs. There is always excitement from Bristol to Memphis to get to Neyland Stadium for the first game, but the wait would go longer than usual in 1994. Shields-Watkins Field was getting a new look, as grass had been installed in Neyland Stadium for the first time since the 1967 season. And to make things tougher, the Vols would start the ’94 season on the road for the first two weeks.
Heath Shuler and Charlie Garner were gone to the riches of the NFL, but there was still plenty to look forward to as the 1994 season approached. Jerry Colquitt, who had battled Shuler for the QB spot two years prior, finally was getting his chance to lead the Tennessee offense, while backed up by All-American baseball player Todd Helton and newcomers Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart . Returning for their final year to handle running duties were James “Little Man” Stewart, Aaron Hayden, and Mose Phillips, who had each had great careers already. Only a few experienced receivers returned from the previous season, led by senior Billy Williams and sophomore Joey Kent, but a talented group of freshmen were coming in. The offensive line returned all but one starter.
Defense was another story, as another rebuilding job was in order. The defensive side had to be completely retooled but there was talent to work with. End Steve White was the constant on an ever changing defensive line. Shane Burton, a former tight end, began the season as the other starter at defensive end. At linebacker, Ben Talley returned for his senior campaign alongside Junior Scott Galyon, now at middle linebacker. George Kidd and Jesse Sanders would share the other LB spot throughout the season. Jason Parker returned as free safety along with veterans corners Ronald Davis and DeRon Jenkins and strong safety Raymond Austin. Freshmen and sophomore backups were all along the two-deep. John Becksvoort and Tom Hutton returned as fourth year starters in the kicking positions.
The first game of the ’94 campaign would be a cross-country trip to UCLA televised on ABC and called by Keith Jackson. One of the saddest events in Tennessee history occurred on the seventh play of the game, as QB Jerry Colquitt tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Colquitt had paid the price of staying at UT to become a senior starter when he could have easily transferred years earlier. Now the Vols would have to move on with Todd Helton. The plan had originally been for Helton to stay with the football team for half the year while Manning and Stewart gained experience, and then Helton would leave to concentrate on baseball. But now, he was the signal caller. Helton, Manning, and Stewart all saw time at quarterback, but the offense struggled to move the ball. UCLA would lead 18-0 when Helton led the surging offense to 23 points in the final period. Stewart and Phillips both had short yard TD dives, and Helton threw for a TD and two two-point conversions. In one of the hardest hits recorded, UT legacy Greg Johnson broke his helmet (and his jaw) on a vicious tackle on a Bruin kickoff return. However, the Bruins scored a touchdown late on a 30-yard run and the Vols fell, 25-23. The defense was led by Talley and Austin but yielded close to 500 yards to the Bruins.
The Vols had to accept the loss of Colquitt and move on quickly as a trip to Athens came the next week. Against UGA, the coaches decided to stick to their offensive strengths, an experienced line and set of running backs. The Vols jumped to a 17-6 halftime lead behind two “Little Man” touchdowns, and then battled throughout the second half and eventually won the game, 41-23. Tennessee rode on the back of Stewart, who had 211 yards rushing and four TD’s, including a career long of 71 in which he shed three tackles in the backfield before sprinting down the sideline. Aaron Hayden left his mark as well, chipping in an additional 113 yards as the Vols went for a total of 383 yards rushing for the game. Helton didn’t need to pass much, but connected when he did, including a 50-yard bomb to Joey Kent, who made a spectacular diving catch. The two would connect for a touchdown in the third quarter. Other standouts for the game included Billy Williams, who pulled in 3 catches for 70 yards along with 102 yards on kickoff returns. Corner Terry Fair seemed to show up everywhere defensively and led the Vols with eight tackles, but the defense again gave up nearly 500 yards to the Bulldogs, including 401 through the air.
All confidence Tennessee gained in Athens was soon shattered in the first home game of the season. Florida came into the newly grassed Neyland Stadium on a nationally televised ESPN night game and blanked the Vols, 31-0, the first shutout of the Vols at Neyland Stadium since 1980. Florida simply outmatched the Vols, as they loaded the box and refused to let Tennessee run the ball, while Florida’s offense manhandled the defense with several long scoring drives. Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart both came off the bench and were able to sustain drives but would get no points out of them. It looked like the Vols had put a touchdown on the board in the fourth quarter when Manning hit Nilo Silvan in the end zone, but the play was called back due to the freshman QB crossing the line of scrimmage. The Vols had no choice but take the beating as a learning experience.
The Vols were hoping the trip the following week to Starkville to would help in getting past the Florida nightmare. That idea ended in the first quarter against Mississippi State, when Todd Helton injured his knee on a QB draw. With Helton out, it was up to the two freshmen quarterbacks to lead the offense. Manning showed poise and hit Kendrick Jones on an out pattern that went for a 76-yard catch and run TD, the first career touchdown for both. Manning hit Joey Kent for another TD right before halftime, and the Vols led 14-7. The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter but then the Vols played Santa Claus, turning the ball over on their final five possessions. The final turnover was the killer, as the Bulldogs drove to score the winning TD with less than a minute on the clock. The 24-21 loss was a heartbreaker. Manning played well, hitting 14 of 23 for 256 yards and two scores. However, the freshman took no pleasure in his performance after the game, noting the only thing that mattered was the team had lost.
The Vols now stood at a nightmare 1-3 record that no one saw coming. The defense was giving up too many yards and too many big plays and the coaches decided changes were needed to the lineup. Shane Burton was moved to defensive tackle to anchor the line, Ben Talley moved from linebacker to defensive end to provide a better pass rush, Scott Galyon moved outside to Talley’s former spot, and Tyrone Hines became the new middle linebacker. The new spots would have to perform under fire. #10 Washington State was bringing one of the top defenses in the country to Neyland, and with Helton now out, the freshman QB Manning was going to get the start. The game looked like something out of the 1950’s, as defense ruled the day. Two big plays on offense turned out to be the difference for the Vols. In the third period, Nilo Silvan made the play of his career by taking a reverse 62-yards for the game’s only touchdown. It was the first touchdown the Cougars defense had given up in 16 quarters through the first of the season. Behind 9-7 in the fourth, Kendrick Jones made a key catch and run to get the Vols deep into Washington State territory. Becksvoort booted a 27-yard field goal to give the Vols the lead. From there the defense solidified and kept Washington State from crossing the 50. The Vols won Homecoming 10-9, in a game that the General would have been proud to watch.
Arkansas was up next and the Vols breezed by the Hogs, 38-21. Mose Phillips started the scoring with a five-yard run in the first quarter, and the Vols came alive in the second with 21 points. Tyrone Hines had the first score of the season by the defense, scooping up a fumble and returning it 38 yards for the touchdown. Phillips scored again, thanks to a 23-yard pass from Manning, and “Little Man” Stewart scored on a short dive. The Vols only had a field goal and one TD in the second half, when Stewart matched Phillips in the scoring department by taking a Manning pass 27 yards for the score. Manning and Stewart both led the offense with confidence, throwing for a total of 211 yards, with the running backs being main targets. The defense still gave up over 400 yards of offense, but they played better as a whole and forced six turnovers. Ben Talley had a good day, racking up ten total tackles, a tackle for loss and two sacks from his new defensive end position. John Becksvoort, with his five PATs on the day, set an SEC record for consecutive extra points with 136 straight without a miss. The Vols were now 3-3 heading into the Third Saturday of October.
For the fifth time in the 1990’s, the Alabama game went to the final seconds before a victor was decided. Alabama was up 3-0 in the fading minutes of the first half when Branndon Stewart led the Vols downfield and Becksvoort tied it up with a 26-yarder as the half ended. The third quarter showed both teams scoring a touchdown and taking a 10-10 tie to the fourth. Tennessee got a field goal to go up 13-10 when Alabama quarterback Jay Barker again engineered a late, 80-yard touchdown drive for the Tide to go up 17-13 with just a few minutes left in the game. Aaron Hayden, who led the Vols in rushing with 145 yards, took a Manning pass 40 yards to get the Vols into Tide territory. Manning led the Vols to the 8-yard line when the drive stalled, and Manning’s fourth down pass to Nilo Silvan fell incomplete. The Tide took possession and ran out the clock for the win. The loss left a bad taste in the mouth of the Vols. James Stewart for the second year in a row had fumbled at the one-yard line with the Vols going for a touchdown. Branndon Stewart demanded to know why he only got one series at the end of the first half to the lead the offense. Fans called the post-game shows demanding why Manning went to the side of the field the covered Silvan was on, while “Little Man” Stewart was by himself on the opposite side of the field and could have easily scored a touchdown. Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe came to the rescue of Manning, saying he did exactly as he had been coached to do, as he went to the side of the field he had the most protection. This was a game the Vols grew up in, and would be the last loss until 1995. It would also mark the last loss to the Tide in the 90’s.
The coming week brought a trip to South Carolina. Although disappointed in the loss to Alabama, the coaches came to the point of realization that Manning was ready for the full offensive playbook to be opened. Manning reassured them with by completing 18 of 23 for 189 yards and three touchdowns, two to James Stewart and one to Joey Kent, who was becoming the favored receiving target. Hayden went for 84 yards on the ground, followed by Stewart with 75 yards and a TD. With his three scores on the day, James Stewart became Tennessee’s all-time scoring leader. The Vols defense held back a South Carolina rally in the fourth, and won 31-22.
After a bye week, Memphis came into Knoxville and the Vols continued their success against the Tigers, winning 24-13 and making the series record 15-0. The Vols had to lean on the running game against the NCAA’s second best defense, as Manning and Stewart combined for only 61 yards through the air. Aaron Hayden went for 129 yards on the ground, James Stewart pitched in 94 yards and a touchdown, and Mose Phillips ran for two short touchdowns. The punt return team was the MVP, with Nilo Silvan returning four punts for a school records 136 yards and setting up all four Vol scores. Tyrone Hines, improving each game at middle linebacker, led Vols defenders with 14 total tackles. The defense broke up ten passes and had four sacks for the game.
The Vols were over .500 for the first time this season, but not without a quarterback controversy brewing. With both QB’s having such a poor showing against the Tigers, call-in shows heated up with the Manning/Stewart debate. Manning, the son of SEC legend Archie Manning, knew the offense and had the confidence of the coaches. The athletic Stewart reminded several of Heath Shuler and had his share of fans wanting more minutes, pointing to the success he had in his only series against Alabama. The debates would continue throughout the season.
In the final home game for the ’94 season against Kentucky, the Vols scored first, last, and often in a 52-0 blowout. It was the second straight shutout, with the Vols outscoring of the Wildcats 100-0 in the last two games. Tennessee totaled 332 yards on the ground, led by Stewart (143, 1 TD) and Hayden (73 and 2 TD’s). Manning went 10 of 15 for 122 yards and scores to Kent and Williams. Manning also got his first rushing TD on a 10-yard scramble. The defense held Kentucky to only two trips across the 50 and caused four turnovers and the punt return game showed up again, with five returns for 105 yards.
The Vols travelled to Nashville for the season ending game against Vandy and made it two straight shutouts, winning 65-0. A 30-point second quarter put the game away, as the Vols rolled up over 400 yards offense in the first half. James “Little Man” Stewart became the Vols’ all-time leading rusher with 121 yards on the day, 1,028 for the season and 2,890 for his career. Aaron Hayden had 77 yards and a TD before seeing his Tennessee career come to a tragic end with a broken leg before halftime. Sophomore Jay Graham matched Stewart’s yardage output for the game along with a TD of his own, a 25-yarder in the fourth period to end the scoring. Utility man Ronnie Pillow rushed for over 70 yards himself and a touchdown, while fullback Chester Ford found paydirt for his first career score. Manning and Stewart combined for 259 yards through the air and three scores. The Vols offense had over 400 yards in the first half and ended with a school record 665 yards, averaging 8 yards a play. John Becksvoort set several records; a NCAA record for consecutive extra points (161), school career record for most points (317), and most extra points in a single game (nine).
With the 1994 regular season ending at 7-4, Tennessee accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl to play #17 Virginia Tech. Due to the stadium construction occurring for the NFL expansion team Jacksonville Jaguars where the Gator Bowl was normally held, the bowl game would instead be played in Gainesville at The Swamp. TBS televised the game, where many Vol fans watching from home noted how strange it was to see the Tennessee checkerboard endzone in the Florida stadium. The Vols didn’t seem to mind, as they raced to a 45-23 win over the Holies behind the running of “Little Man” Stewart and Jay Graham, and the passing of both Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart. The Vols outclassed VT, going up 14-0 after the first quarter and 35-10 at halftime. James Stewart was named MVP in his final game as a Vol after a performance that included three rushing touchdowns and even a touchdown pass to Kendrick Jones on a trick play. Many Vols finished the season on a high note with great performances.
Tennessee finished the season 8-4 and ranked #22 in the NCAA, a great leap from the 1-3 start of the season. Peyton Manning was named SEC Freshman of the Year for his performance, one that no one saw coming in August. Shortly after the bowl game, Branndon Stewart announced he was transferring to Texas A&M. Manning acknowledged that the two-man QB rotation would not have been able to continue past their freshman year, and that he understood Stewart transferring for a shot at playing time elsewhere. Tennessee attempted to get a sixth year of eligibility for injured QB Jerry Colquitt, but was denied by the NCAA. He would be drafted in the following NFL Draft, along with four other former Vols. James “Little Man” Stewart was drafted in the first round to the new Jacksonville Jaguars franchise.
While the Big Orange nation didn’t know it at the time, the struggle of the 1994 season would propel Tennessee into the position of being one of the top programs in the nation. Peyton Manning would only get better and his name alone helped Tennessee sign one of the top recruiting classes in the nation that following February that would include a number of future Volunteer heroes and legends.
Until next time.