Orange Memories, 1995
After the rebound of a 1-3 start and the blowout win over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, Tennessee was looking to be a favorite to win the SEC Championship in 1995. Most of that optimism laid at the hands (and arm) of sophomore quarterback, Peyton Manning. With Branndon Stewart now transferred to Texas A&M, it was clear that this was Manning’s offense to lead. Manning spent the offseason getting stronger and improving his passing motion under the tutelage of David Cutcliffe.
Behind Manning were the makings of a high powered offense. With the loss of James Stewart, Aaron Hayden, and Mose Phillips, the running duties would fall on former high school All-American Jay Graham, who would be running behind fullbacks Eric Lane and Chester Ford. At wide receiver, a young and talented group led by Joey Kent and Marcus Nash returned to be the recipients of Manning’s throws. The offensive line returned four year starters Jason Layman, Bubba Miller, and Jeff Smith while introducing players such as Trey Teague, Jarvis Reado, and Robert Poole to the rotation. The tight ends, mainly used in blocking, got a new face in fast, talented freshman Dustin Moore.
New defensive coordinator John Chavis, the long-time assistant at Tennessee, was finally going to get his chance to lead the defense. For Chavis, it would be an ideal group of players to inherit. All but two starters returned from the previous year, but it was a newcomer that would be the face of Chavis’ attacking style defense. Defensive end Leonard Little, who had signed with Tennessee two years prior but had to go the Junior College route, arrived on campus and immediately became a starter. He would be joined by veteran end Steve White and tackles Shane Bonham, Bill Duff, Billy Beron, and Ron Green. Linebacker would once again be manned by Tyrone Hines, Scott Galyon, and Jesse Sanders. Strong safety Raymond Austin and corners DeRon Jenkins and Terry Fair would lead the backfield along with free safety Cory Gaines and Tori Noel.
The Vols hosted East Carolina in the season opener. On its first possession, Tennessee marched to an eight minute, 87-yard, 17-play drive that led to a Manning one-yard sneak. DeRon Jenkins would get an interception that led to a touchdown pass to Nilo Silvan from Manning, after giving a beautiful fake. Eric Lane scored on a one-yard dive, and the defense and kicking game did the rest. Safeties Austin and Gaines were both in on 10 tackles, and new kicker Jeff Hall went two for three on field goals and perfect on extra points. The Vols won, 27-17 over the Pirates, who would go on to the Liberty Bowl at the end of the season. Jay Graham had 144 yards rushing while Manning would go 17 of 29 for 178 yards and a score.
Those who do not embrace the excitement of a close game should have avoided the Georgia contest. The Bulldogs brought a solid team into Neyland Stadium, led by running back Robert Edwards and quarterback Mike Bobo. UGA and Tennessee traded touchdowns on the first two drives of the game. The Bulldogs scored first but Manning matched the Bulldogs by leading the Vols on their own 80-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 45-yard diving catch by Joey Kent and Manning scoring on an eight-yard scamper. Behind 10-7 in the second, Manning went to work again and led the Vols to the one yard line and hit Ronnie Pillow for the score. Jeff Hall added a field goal and the Vols led 17-10 at the half. In the third quarter, the Bulldogs scored two straight touchdowns, on a one-yard dive by Edwards and a 17-yard TD pass by Bobo. The Vol offense drove the ball down the field, and after a brilliant play-action fake, Manning hit Kent for a 16-yard score on a post route. Hall added another field goal to go up 27-24 before the end of the third. The Bulldogs offense began to lose steam after losing Edwards to a leg injury in the third quarter. Before his injury, Edwards had rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns in less than three full quarters. The Bulldogs would get a field goal to tie the game at 27, and after a Manning interception, had a chance to get the lead. However, their kick attempt was no good, and with time running low on the clock, Manning began the last drive hitting a flare pass to Graham, who took it 29-yards into Georgia territory. The Vols moved into range and Jeff Hall nailed the 34-yard field goal with ten seconds on the clock to win the instant SEC classic. The Vols had survived in a game that saw four lead changes. In a sign of things to come throughout the season, Manning threw for near 350 yards, 10 of which went to Kent, while Graham broke the century mark on the ground.
There was something for everyone to be happy about in 1995, but only a masochist could find something positive about the next game against Florida. The Vols led the Gators by 16 points at two separate points in the first half, powered by two Manning to Nash touchdowns, a Chester Ford one-yard run, and Raymond Austin’s 46-yard fumble return for a touchdown. The Vols went into halftime up 30-21 and with momentum. The second half of the game was unthinkable; the wheels didn’t just come off, they caught fire and exploded. The Gators thrashed the Vol defense for 41 points in the second half and the offense would not manage a touchdown until the fourth quarter when freshman Jermaine Copeland led the Vols to a late score. Florida had almost 600 yards of offense, with QB Danny Wuerfell passing for 380 yards and six touchdowns, overshadowing Manning’s 326-yard, two TD effort. The win over UT would spring Florida to the SEC Championship and National Title game at the end of the season.
The Vols were in a foul mood following the Florida debacle, and Mississippi State was the unfortunate foe to be scheduled the next week. After two Hall field goals in the first quarter, Tennessee used some trickery and got their first TD on a Jermaine Copeland 7-yard run from the QB position with Manning lining up at wide receiver. Manning hit Nash for the two-point conversion, and shortly afterwards Graham hit paydirt for his first score of the season. Special teams also pitched in, as Shane Burton not only blocked a punt, but picked up and ran the ball in for a touchdown. The Vols went to the half after a 25-point second quarter. In the second half, UT scored on the ground three times, once each by Graham, Eric Lane, and freshman Shawn Bryson. Tennessee won over the Bulldogs handily, 52-14.
For Homecoming, Tennessee hosted the outmatched Oklahoma State Cowboys and won 31-0. Manning passed for 199 yards and two touchdowns, and Jay Graham led the attack with 108 yards on the ground and two scores. The Vol defense held their Big 8 opponent to just 150 yards total offense for the game.
The following week the Vols faced a dangerous trip to Fayetteville to face SEC West opponent Arkansas. The Vols found themselves down 24-14 before going on a final 35-7 run to get the win over the Hogs, 49-31. Manning started the scoring, hitting Kent with a 55-yard bomb down the sideline in the first quarter. The Vols fell behind 17-7 before another Manning to Kent connection got the Vols within a field goal. Arkansas answered with another score and at that point, Manning took over the game. He hit Eric Lane and Maurice Staley for touchdowns to give the Vols a 28-24 lead at halftime. It was all Vols in the second half; specifically, it was all Jay Graham, who scored three times and finished with 130 yards on the ground. Manning passed for 384 yards and four TD’s while Kent tied a school record with 13 receptions for the game. The Vol offense accounted for a sterling 521 total yards on the day.
In 1982, Tennessee ended 11 years of frustration by upsetting Alabama behind a sophomore quarterback named Alan Cockrell. Thirteen years later, sophomore Peyton Manning would lead the Vols into Legion Field to end another streak. All it took was the first play of the game. Manning hit Joey Kent streaking down the right hashmark, and with a quick cut to the left and excellent downfield blocking, Kent raced to the end zone. One play, 80 yards, Vols lead 7-0. After the defense forced a ‘Bama punt, the Vols began a 93-yard drive that ended with a Manning to Nash score from 25-yards. Leonard Little would make his impact on the game the next drive, as he blasted Alabama QB Brian Borgdorf on an attempted option play and caused a fumble that Bill Duff recovered. Manning made quick work, driving the Vols downfield. On third down at the one-yard line, he scored on a naked bootleg keeper that no one saw coming. At the end of the first quarter, the Vols had the game in hand 21-0. Alabama would insert backup QB Freddie Kitchens, who would lead the Tide to a score. Manning matched him with a 30-yard strike to Nash with under 50 seconds left in the half. The Vols were dominating the Tide 28-7 at halftime and the Alabama fans were shell-shocked. Alabama would score in the third quarter to cut the lead, but Jay Graham would put an end to any hopes for a Tide comeback with a 75-yard run down the right sideline on the first play of the next series. Two Jeff Hall field goals in the fourth quarter were just icing. Tennessee had not only ended the streak at nine games, but put an exclamation point on it, 41-14. A huge celebration erupted as the players went to the Volunteer fans that had made the trip, cheering along to the sounds of Rocky Top. Although Manning was the MVP of the game, hitting 21 of 30 for 329 yards and three scores, it was a total team effort. The defense, led by SEC Defensive Player of the Week Shane Burton, smothered the Alabama offense, causing three interceptions and recovering two fumbles. Graham recorded a sixth game rushing for 100 yards or more, tying a school record. The Vols enjoyed their victory cigars and sang “I don’t give a damn about the whole state of Alabama” while echoing singer Etta James; “At Last”.
The Vols had a bye week to celebrate the Alabama victory and get ready for the last half of the season. In the first game back in Neyland after nearly a month, the Vols hosted South Carolina and senior QB Steve Taneyhill. Vol fans will always remember the antics of Taneyhill during the 1992 game and would boo him unmercifully. Jesse Sanders would also hit Taneyhill without mercy. USC was driving for an apparent touchdown on its first possession when Taneyhill scrambled and dove for what was a sure touchdown. Sanders blasted the QB so hard, Taneyhill’s entire body got turned around at the one-yard line, keeping the cocky QB from the score. Two plays later, Carolina lined up for the short field goal when Leonard Little blocked the kick and Tyrone Hines scooped up the ball, taking it back 90 yards for the touchdown. Little not only blocked the kick, but made it downfield fast enough to give the key block for Hines to score. In the second quarter, the Vols offense rocked USC. Manning hit Kent for two scores, Chester Ford scored on a short run, and even the holder, Jason Price, got into the scoring on a 15-yard run off a faked field goal. The Vols went to halftime up 35-7 and it just got worse for the Gamecocks afterward. Graham scored twice in the third, one from a Manning pass and another on a 66-yard run. Manning would add one more score, this time to tight end Scott Pfeiffer, and the Vols rolled to a 56-21 victory. At this point in the season it was easy to know what the stats would say; Graham over 100 yards (his seventh of the year to break the school record); Manning with over 200 yards passing and multiple scores; and Kent leading the receivers with near 100 yards. The defense had another great performance, limiting USC to less than 300 yards of offense, and shutting up Taneyhill in his last game against the Big Orange.
The old saying is “They remember what you do in November” and the Vols started the month in style, soaring over the Southern Miss Golden Eagles by a score of 42-0. The defense led the way on this day, swarming USM with five sacks, five turnovers, and only 142 yards of offense. The offense played with a short field all day. Jay Graham again went over 100 yards for the day along with two scores and Manning got a sneak for a TD while also hitting Kent and tight end Dustin Moore for scores. Special teams got another score for the season, as Ray Austin blocked a punt and Mark Levine returned it seven yards for the touchdown.
After the final bye week of the season, the Vols travelled to Lexington. On a cold day that saw the Volunteer offense slow to get started, Kentucky raced for a 24-9 lead in the early third quarter, with three Hall field goals being the only points the Vols could muster. Manning finally got the offense going, leading the Vols to an 18-point third quarter to take the lead. Hall got a 47-yard field goal, Manning scored on a sneak and then connected with Kent for a 70-yard touchdown. Kentucky was not out yet, and their quarterback, Billy Jack Haskins, injured shoulder and all, ran for a remarkable 47-yard touchdown to take the lead back for the Wildcats. Manning again led the Vol offense to a courageous comeback, mixing short passes with Graham’s runs to get the Vols downfield. Manning then hit Greg Kyler for the go-ahead score that would prove to be the game winner. Kentucky got the ball back and lined up for a game-tying 48-yard field goal with five minutes left. But Ray Austin blocked the kick, and the Vol offense was able to kill the clock for the final 11 plays of the game. UT escaped Lexington with a 34-31 win. Jay Graham, with 147 yards, posted his ninth 100-yard-plus game. Leonard Little played brilliantly from his defensive end spot, recording 12 total stops, four tackles for loss and two sacks.
In the final game of the season at Neyland, 16 seniors made their last run through the “T” and then learned to take heed of the competition that Vanderbilt could bring. The Commodores scored on their first drive of the game to go up 7-0 and in the second period, blocked Jeff Hall’s PAT after a Chester Ford score. The score remained 7-6 throughout the second half. Although the Vol offense had 455 yards in the game, they could not get to the endzone. Jay Graham became the hero of the day, rushing for a career high 211 yards and the game winning score with 2:59 left in the game to put the Vols up for good, 12-7. The Vol defense held Vanderbilt on their last drive to ensure the victory. The defense kept Tennessee in the game, allowing only 192 yards total offense.
The Vols finished the regular season 10-1 for the first time since 1989 and ranked #4 in both the AP and Coaches polls. Tennessee had several record breaking performances for the season. Graham set records for most 100-yard-plus games in a season (10) and single season yardage (1,438). Manning set single season records in most passing categories, going 244 of 380 for 2,954 yards for 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also moved to third on Tennessee’s all-time passing list as just a sophomore. Junior wide receiver Joey Kent set season records for receptions and receiving yards (69 for 1,055 yards) and was the SEC’s top receiver for the season. He also became the first Tennessee receiver to go over the 1,000 yard mark for a season. The offense set school records for first downs and first downs by passing, while nationally ranking 11th in total offense and seventh in scoring. The defense also set a few records, registering a school record 42 sacks for the campaign, led by Little (11) and Steve White (9). White would finish his career fourth on the Volunteer all-time sack list with 20.
Due to Florida winning the SEC Championship game, the Gators would play Nebraska in the national championship Fiesta Bowl. Tennessee accepted the invitation to the Citrus Bowl to face Big Ten opponent Ohio State. The Buckeyes had ranked in the top two of the country through the last half of the season but lost their final game of the season against hated rival Michigan in Ann Arbor. Not only did they lose the game, they lost their chance at the Rose Bowl and a possible national championship. The Buckeyes came into the bowl game tied with Tennessee in the AP rankings at #4, and had their own loaded offense led by Heisman Trophy winning running back Eddie George, receiver Terry Glenn, tight end Rickey Dudley, Lombardi award winning tackle Orlando Pace, and quarterback Bobby Hoying (all were future first round draft choices outside of Hoying, who would go in the third round). The country realized this was probably the best bowl matchup possible outside the Bowl Alliance championship game, although neither team probably wanted to be in Orlando for New Years.
For a game that featured two high powered offenses, it was the defenses and the weather that would be the deciding factor. The rain poured before and throughout the game and footing would be at a premium. The first quarter saw Ohio State take a 7-0 lead on a short run by Eddie George. In the second quarter, Vol fullback Eric Lane fumbled inside the 30-yard line after a short Manning pass and the Buckeyes recovered. Ohio State drove to the two yard line, where on fourth down, Bill Duff made the play of his career and stuffed the Heisman Trophy winner for a loss. Tennessee and Ohio State traded punts and Tennessee took over at their 20 yard line with 41 seconds left in the half. The Vols decided to give it to Graham, who on the second play burst for a 69-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 at halftime. In the third quarter, a Manning to Kent pass for 47 yards put UT ahead, as Kent made a great adjustment to make the catch. Ohio State would tie it up in the fourth on a Hoying to Dudley pass, but as it had occurred several times in the season, Jeff Hall became the difference. The freshman kicker connected on 29- and 25-yard kicks, the defense held Ohio State out of the endzone and the Vols won in a great rain-soaked game of heavyweights, 20-14. After the game, some controversy made the news as Tennessee was accused of using illegal cleats in the second half that gave them an unfair advantage, but accusations then flew against Ohio State and their possible use of rubbing soap on their uniforms to make it harder for them to tackle.
No matter the Citrus controversy, the Vols had a win in the record books. Florida was manhandled in the national championship game, suffering a 62-24 smackdown to a Nebraska team that has been voted as one of the best of all time. Tennessee finished ranked #3 in the AP, and actually jumped the Gators in the USA Today/Coaches poll, finishing #2. Again, some controversy arose from the final rankings as many viewed the Coaches poll as a way of several coaches to get back against Florida’s coach, Steve Spurrier. Tennessee actually came out better at the end of the season by winning the Citrus Bowl than playing Nebraska and having the same outcome as what happened to Florida.
So an 11-1 season, record setting performances, and a top 3 ranking in the polls? Not bad for a team that didn’t even get a chance to play in the conference championship game, and final results any Volunteer fan would take in any season…except the one three years later.
Until next time!