Orange Memories, 1997 – The Portrait of Champions; the Drive to the Dome

With the March announcement that Peyton Manning would return to play his senior season, the Volunteers marched through spring practice with the determination to become a championship caliber team.  The question on offense would be the running game, where Jay Graham was now gone to the NFL, and whether Mark Levine and Shawn Bryson could handle the load, or if Tennessee would have to wait until a group of freshman would have an impact.  Then the Vols got a major scare in the annual Orange and White game when receiver Peerless Price broke his ankle on a touchdown catch.  However, thanks to Price’s determination and the work of Tennessee’s training staff, Price would amazingly be ready for the season opener. 

On defense, the Vols lost some leadership in long time starters Tyrone Hines and Raymond Austin, but would be seeing the return of Leonard Little, who missed most of the last half of the ’96 season with an ACL tear.  Little was moved to middle linebacker to utilize his speed, but would see plenty of time at end in passing situations.  He would be joined by other returning defensive leaders Jonathan Brown, Al Wilson, Tori Noel and Terry Fair.

Tennessee kicked off the 1997 campaign hosting Texas Tech and blew out the Red Raiders, 52-17.  Peyton Manning got the Vols on the scoreboard with a first quarter, nine-yard touchdown to Jermaine Copeland.  Both teams could then only manage a field goal apiece until less than two minutes remained in the first half.  Tennessee got two quick scores before the half with a 23-yard Manning to Marcus Nash pass; and after getting the ball back off a turnover, Mark Levine punched in a score from the one.  Tennessee was up 24-3 at half and going away.  In the third quarter, it was the Payton Manning Air Show, recording three touchdown passes with one each to Marcus Nash, Andy McCullough, and Price.  Texas Tech got two late scores in against reserves and Tee Martin got some playing time, hitting a bomb for a touchdown.  That set a single game team record for six touchdown passes in a single game; Manning’s five touchdown passes tied a school record held by Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler.  Twelve different receivers caught passes and eight different backs had carries.  Defensively, Raynoch Thompson led the team with eight tackles and Dwayne Goodrich showed why he was dubbed “Magnet”, with an interception and fumble recovery.  In just 12 career games, Goodrich had collected three interceptions and five fumble recoveries. 

(Texas Tech Game Broadcast:

The Vols went cross-country the following week to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the site of Peyton Manning’s first collegiate action in 1994.  While he didn’t have an impact in that game, he certainly would in this one.  Tennessee’s defense got the first two scores of the game in the first quarter; first, Leonard Little sacked UCLA quarterback Cade McNown for a safety.  On UCLA’s next offensive drive, it was Little again causing havoc off a blitz, forcing McNown into a bad throw that was easily intercepted by safety Cory Gaines and returned for a touchdown.  The Volunteer offense got on track in the second quarter, with Manning hitting Copeland (24-yards) and Nash (39-yards) for scores and UT was up 24-3 at the half.  Those who thought UT had the game in hand didn’t find agreement from the Bruins.  After the teams traded field goals in the third quarter, the UCLA offense exploded for 18 straight points to make it a 27-24 Volunteers lead.  Tennessee got some insurance with another Hall field goal but there was plenty of time for UCLA to drive for a score.  Little made the big play again, causing a fumble that safety Fred White recovered.  The Vols ran out the clock and escaped from L.A.  with a 30-24 win.  Its senior captains again led Tennessee, with Manning hitting 28 of 49 passes for 341 yards and two scores.  Little was named SEC Lineman of the Week after recording six tackles, one TFL, a sack, and a caused fumble.  Tennessee would feel better of the win at the end of the season, as UCLA finished 10-2 and had the best offense in the nation. 

(UCLA Game Highlights: )

Tennessee had two weeks to recover from the trip to L.A.  and get ready for the annual Florida game.  Media attention was once again high, with talk all over the sports world.  Sports Illustrated even displayed the game with a drawing of Manning wrestling an alligator on its cover.  Much of the hype was whether Manning could finally defeat the Gators.  After the Gators scored on their first series, Manning led the offense into Florida territory.  It looked like Tennessee would get on the board, but Florida harassed the senior QB into a bad throw, which was intercepted and returned for an 89-yard touchdown.  Tennessee found itself down 14-0 after the first quarter, and despite three Manning touchdown passes, never got close after that.  A Manning to Copeland score cut the lead to 14-7, but Florida answered right after with their own touchdown to take a 20-7 halftime lead.  Florida and Tennessee matched each other score for score in the second half, and the game ended with a 33-20 Volunteers loss.  Tennessee had now lost five straight to Florida since 1992.  Manning apologized to fans for not being able to beat the Gators but continued to emphasize the season was not over yet. 

The following week, Tennessee announced it would be starting freshman tailback Jamal Lewis in an effort to get the running game going, and not try to lean on Manning’s arm for all of the offense.  The Vols were hosting Ole Miss on a beautiful October afternoon.  Before the Vols took the field, Peyton Manning gave a locker room speech telling everyone that they needed to let the past week go, play loose, and have fun.  It took over a quarter for it to kick in, but the Vols finally got things going before the end of the first half.  After a scoreless first quarter, Ole Miss got on the scoreboard first with a field goal.  On its last possession of the half, Manning directed the Vols to pay dirt, hitting Nash for 20 yards and the score.  Starting the third quarter with the ball, Manning led the Vols downfield again and hit McCullough on a post route from 24-yards for the touchdown.  After the ensuing kickoff, Dwayne Goodrich added to the point total, returning an interception 30 yards for the score.  Ole Miss responded with a 74-yard touchdown run to get their first touchdown of the day.  In the fourth quarter, Tennessee went to the true freshman Lewis to grind out the rushing yards.  Ole Miss cut the lead to 24-17, when Lewis put the game out of reach with a 42-yard run through the Rebel defense.  Lewis finished with 22 carries for 155 yards and a touchdown in his first start, and gave Manning the needed rushing attack the Vols had been needing.  Manning finished with 324 yards in the air with two scores for the day. 

(Ole Miss Game Broadcast: )

The Georgia Bulldogs entered Neyland Stadium ready to bump off the Vols, and once again, the Bulldogs would be left hanging their head.  A record Neyland Stadium crowd saw the Tennessee offense have the best performance of the season.  Tennessee took the kickoff and went for an opening drive touchdown for the first time of the season, with Manning and Nash connecting from 13-yards.  With the score tied 10-10, Tennessee found itself on its own one yard line.  On third and eight, Lewis broke free for a 38-yard run to get the Vols to the 40.  Manning mixed the run and pass to get the Vols downfield, and found Cedric Wilson in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown to cap the 10-play, 99-yard drive.  Before the end of the half, Tennessee got the ball and again drove downfield.  Manning hit Peerless Price with a short pass, and Price dove in for the 8-yard score to put the Vols up 24-10 at halftime.  The Volunteer rallying cry of the second half was “Give the ball to Jamal!” as Jamal Lewis kept getting huge chunks of yards against a tiring Bulldog defense.  Lewis would set a freshman single-game record with 232 yards rushing for the day.  The Vol defense continued to smother the Georgia offense on its way to a four sack, seven TFL performance led by Al Wilson and Jonathan Brown.  Manning put the Bulldogs away for good in the fourth quarter, getting a one-yard sneak for a score and then hitting Derrick Edmonds for a 15-yard insurance touchdown.  Tennessee once again had taken the wind out of the UGA sails, 38-13.  Georgia coach Jim Donnan had a few choice words with Coach Fulmer for the Vols’ last touchdown of the game, with Tennessee up and still passing.

(UGA Highlights: )

Fans hoping for another Volunteer win over Alabama were in for yet another treat.  Tennessee spotted Alabama two field goals before getting on the board late in the first quarter with a 19-yard run by fullback Shawn Bryson.  A Terry Fair interception set up another Bryson score, this time from two-yards out, to give the Vols a 14-6 lead.  Manning added on to the lead, hitting Jermaine Copeland for a perfectly executed 30-yard pass-catch-run to push the lead to 21-6 at halftime.  Tennessee opened the third period with a defensive stop and a blocked punt by reserve Eric Brown.  This led to Manning finding Copeland again for a 10-yard score.  Alabama matched the Vols with a drive and score their own, and Jeff Hall hit a 28-yarder on the last play of the third quarter to make it a 31-14 Tennessee lead.  The fourth quarter saw Manning reach out and deliver a long touchdown connection with Peerless Price to make it 38-14 before Alabama finished the scoring with a short touchdown to give the Vols a 38-21 win at Legion Field.  Manning finished with 304 yards passing and three touchdowns, and became the first Tennessee QB to beat the Tide three straight times.  The defense, led by Tori Noel and Billy Ratliffe, held the Tide to just 225 total yards.

(Alabama Broadcast: )

On a rainy day against South Carolina, Tennessee leaned on defense and running of Jamal Lewis to defeat South Carolina.  The Vols used a little trickery while driving for their first score, as Manning threw a lateral pass to Jermaine Copeland, who then found Peerless Price for a 43-yard completion.  This helped lead the offense to the one-yard line, where Lewis punched it in.  Jeff Hall missed the extra point, but hit his first of three field goals to extend the lead to 9-0 at the half.  Hall connected on a 34-yarder in the third quarter, and Lewis gave the knockout punch with a spectacular 65-yard touchdown off the sweep.  Hall added a 47-yarder to finish the scoring for the day, and the Vol defense kept the Gamecocks off the scoreboard until late.  The defense held USC to just 168 yards total offense and tied a school record with eight sacks on the day; Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown combined for five.  Manning had an off day, connecting on just nine passes for 169 yards.  Heisman Trophy pollsters must have took notice, or were just simply becoming bored with Manning being the season long front-runner, as the media began touting the play of a Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson.  Manning was more interested in the events occurring just a few hours after the win over USC, as Florida lost its second conference game.  This meant Tennessee now controlled its own destiny to win the SEC East. 

In response to the chance of winning the SEC East Division for the first time, the second-largest crowd in Neyland Stadium (and NCAA) history came to see Tennessee host Southern Miss at Homecoming.  It took a little while for the Volunteer offense to wake up, finding itself in a 13-6 deficit in the second quarter.  The defense then set up the offense to take over the game, as defensive tackle Darwin Walker returned a fumble 18 yards into Southern Miss territory.  Manning awarded the defense and got the score on a one-yard sneak.  Getting the ball back before halftime, Manning hit Peerless Price for a one-yard score to give UT the 20-13 edge.  In the third quarter, Manning broke the game open by throwing for three touchdowns; one to Copeland and two to Nash.  Jeff Hall connected on his third field goal of the day to finish the scoring, and UT won 44-20.  Manning had a great game, completing 35 of 53 passes for 399 yards and four scores.  Jermaine Copeland had a career-high 11 catches for 137 and one score, while Nash pulled in 10 catches for 110 yards and two scores.  The Vols defense held Southern Miss to just 65 net yards on the ground, led by Al Wilson’s 11 tackles. 

Tennessee next made the trip to Arkansas, where the Vols had never lost a game.  Tennessee got the only score of the first quarter with a Manning swing pass to Jamal Lewis, who thanks to a few moves and broken tackles took the ball 23-yards into the end zone.  Arkansas jumped ahead in the second quarter, first getting a field goal, and then returning a Manning interception for a touchdown.  The Vol defense got the ball back on a fumble recovery, letting the offense take the lead again, with Manning finding Nash on a quick drag going across the field for a 13-yard score to give the Vols the 14-10 lead at halftime.  The third quarter saw a series of field goals, with Arkansas getting and Tennessee one, but Arkansas took the lead early in the fourth with a touchdown to make it 22-17.  The Tennessee offense got the big play they were looking for, as Manning hit Nash in stride for a 49-yard touchdown.  The 2-point try failed, leaving Tennessee with a 23-22 edge.  The defense held the Razorbacks offense, and special teamer Eric Brown blocked the Arkansas punt, his second of the season.  This set up a quick drive by the Vols, and Jamal Lewis took the left side sweep into the end zone from four yards out to put the game out of reach.  The offensive trio of Manning, Nash, and Lewis led the Vols.  Lewis had 124 rushing yards and the 23-yard TD, Nash had five catches for 126 yards and two scores, and Manning’s 264 yards passing made him just the 12th quarterback to break the 10,000-yard mark for a career.  On the defensive side, Tori Noel led with 13 tackles, while freshman linebacker Jerrod Hayden was in on nine and the fumble recovery in the second quarter. 

For lovers of passing offenses, there was no better place to be than Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium.  Although the weather was cold, the arms of Peyton Manning and Wildcat quarterback Tim Couch were on fire.  The offensive statistics of the game were ridiculous for both teams.  Manning led Tennessee to a 24-21 lead at halftime behind two touchdown passes to Nash and one to McCullough, but Couch was there almost step for step, throwing for two TD’s of his own.  Tennessee blew open the game with a 21-point third quarter, as Manning hit Jamal Lewis for a 50-yard score, Lewis punched in a one-yarder on the ground, and Manning hit Nash again from 31 yards out.  Lewis sealed the victory in the fourth quarter with two scores on the ground to give the Vols a 59-31 win.  Manning completed 25 of 35 passes for a school record 525 yards and five scores.  Marcus Nash caught seven for a career-high 195 yards and tied the school record with three touchdowns.  Jermaine Copeland not only caught seven passes for 72 yards, but also made a 22-yard completion to Shawn Bryson on the wide receiver pass.  Jamal Lewis had four total scores and became the first Vol running back in history to have over 100 yards rushing and receiving in a game. 

(First half: ; Second half: )

Even with the career game against Kentucky, Manning actually began falling behind Charles Woodson in Heisman polling.  Woodson had a good game against Ohio State, picking off a pass and returning a punt for a touchdown on ABC’s nationally televised game, while Manning’s effort were only seen on a regional basis.  Conspiracy theorists became vocal that because ESPN and ABC were owned by the same parent company, there was a media push to have the supposedly best player on Michigan’s #1 ranked team to win the Heisman and be showcased on the ABC-televised Rose Bowl. 

Despite all the Heisman talk, Manning went about preparing for his final home game against Vanderbilt.  It was an exciting day for Manning and 27 other Vols seniors, as their final game in Neyland Stadium would be their chance at sealing the SEC East division.  Thousands of Tennessee fans joined together at the Vol Walk to give their appreciation for all of the memories the seniors had provided during their four years.  No applause has ever been louder for seniors running through the “T” for the last time as there was for Leonard Little and Peyton Manning.  As had been the case the prior two years, Vanderbilt brought a tough defense that was able to keep Manning in check.  After a scoreless first quarter, the Commodores kicked a 47-yard field goal.  Manning put the Vols ahead for good, hitting Jermaine Copeland across the field for a 33-yard score.  Jeff Hall knocked in a chip shot 19-yarder and the Vols went into halftime up 10-3.  In the third quarter, Manning led the Vols down the field and scored from the one on what had become his trademark, bootleg left.  The Vols needed his score, as Vanderbilt came back with a drive and touchdown of their own to cut the lead.  As they had done throughout the game, the Volunteer defense shut down Vanderbilt’s offense and did not allow them to cross midfield.  The defense, holding Vandy to just 35 yards passing and 215 total yards, gave the Vols the 17-10 win and the SEC East Divisional title for the first time.  Dwayne Goodrich, the “Magnet”, once again showed his big play potential, picking off two passes and recovering a fumble and named Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.  Defensive end Corey Terry made his presence known as well, recording six tackles, six assists, and two TFL’s.  Vanderbilt again gave Manning a rough game, but the Vol offense got it done on the ground thanks to Jamal Lewis and his 196 rushing yards.  The win gave Tennessee their third straight 10-win season, and Neyland Stadium celebrated as Manning directed the Pride of the Southland in yet another playing of “Rocky Top”. 

(Pregame: ; First Half: ; Second Half: ; Phillips Fulmer Coach’s Show: )

Although the Vols had won the East, there was still one more game to claim the SEC Title.  #3 Tennessee would face #11 Auburn the following week in the 1997 SEC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome.  If Tennessee was heavily favored, they did not play like it.  After Manning connecting with Price on a 40-yard bomb for the touchdown, Auburn racked up 20 straight points.  The Vols kept making mistake after mistake with interceptions and fumbles, effectively killing drives and giving the Tigers good field position.  The Vols managed a field goal and were down 20-10 at halftime.  In the third, Manning took the Vols downfield to score on a 5-yard pass to Copeland.  Auburn matched the score with one of their own on a Damien Craig to Fred Beasley pass.  Manning once again led the Vols to pay dirt, as Price again pulled in a Manning pass and took it in for a 46-yard touchdown.  Jeff Hall’s extra point attempt was blocked and Auburn returned it all the way back for two points, giving the Tigers the 29-23 lead going into the fourth quarter.  Sometimes simple plays become the biggest of a game, and that certainly became the case for Tennessee.  With less than 12 minutes remaining in the game, Marcus Nash caught a Manning pass on an out pattern, broke the initial tackle, and sprinted down the sideline for a 73-yard score to tie the game.  Hall’s extra point was good, and Tennessee had somehow came back to take the 30-29 lead.  The Volunteer defense clamped down to protect the lead.  Tennessee’s offense got the ball back and on fourth down, Lewis burst through the line to give the Vols a first and goal as time went under a minute.  Tennessee ran out the clock, and had secured the SEC Championship for the first time since 1990.  Manning completed 25 of 43 passes for 373 yards and four scores.  Jamal Lewis set an SEC Championship Game record with 127 yards rushing, giving the freshman 1,364 yards for the season, the most ever by a UT freshman and sixth best in NCAA history for a freshman.  The Tennessee defense held Auburn to just 66 yards of total offense in the second half and minus-15 yards rushing for the game, also a SEC Championship record.  Terry Fair set both school and SECC Game records with 157 punt return yards, and a 45-yard return set another SECC Game high.  Tennessee’s five sacks helped set a school record for sacks, with 47 on the season. 

Manning was able to enjoy the win throughout the week, showing up on “The Late Show with David Letterman” as the first ever college quarterback to be a guest.  Manning acted poised answering questions and showed he had prepared for the appearance as much as he would a game.  The most interesting item mentioned during the interview that caught fans attention was the knee injury he had suffered in the SECC Game, where his bursa sac had burst.  Manning mentioned he was having it checked out by a doctor Letterman had seen a few years earlier, to which Letterman jokingly replied, “The kid’s got writers!”  Manning ended his segment by successfully completed the “Late Show QB Challenge”, throwing a football into an open third-story window across the street.  Critics agreed, Manning came off great in the segment.

(Peyton Manning on the Late Show: )

As far as the Bowl and National Title picture, #1 Michigan would face #8 Washington State in the Rose Bowl, which was not part of the Bowl Alliance.  Due to the setup, this left #2 Nebraska and #3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl as the Bowl Alliance National Championship game.  This all brought another angle to the Heisman Trophy presentation, as Manning, Michigan’s Charles Woodson, and Washington State’s quarterback, Ryan Leaf, would be at the presentation, joined by Marshall receiver Randy Moss.  While Manning had been the clear-cut favorite since before the season, Woodson had come out of nowhere to be the biggest challenge behind the ESPN/ABC hype machine.  When the big moment arrived, the hearts of everyone in the Vol Nation sank; the Heisman Trophy was awarded to Woodson by a comfortable 272-vote margin.  Sports Information Director Bud Ford, who had led the yearlong Heisman campaign for Manning, lowered his head and cried.  Through it all, Manning stood diligent and with class, answering each question reporters shot at him into the night, long after the ceremony had finished.  His one thought on the matter was that he was not ashamed to not have won, but felt he had let down Tennessee for not giving them their first Heisman winner.  Older Vol fans talked of feeling the same punch to the heart in 1956, when Johnny Majors lost to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung, quarterback of a 2-8 Notre Dame team.  Fourteen years later, Charles Woodson is still to date the only primarily-defensive player to ever win the Heisman.

After the media circus of the “Heist-Man” as Tennessee fans called it, Tennessee directed full attention on preparing for the Orange Bowl.  News came out during practices Manning may not be able to play due to his knee injury, and backup Tee Martin received most of the practice time.  Martin would later say it was during this time, with the uncertainty of Manning playing, that he truly became a Tennessee quarterback.  But as expected during the week of the bowl game, it was announced Manning would play.

The Orange Bowl in Miami featured a number of senior college football stars, several which would become household names in the NFL.  It also marked the final game for Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne, who was retiring.  The Volunteers were hoping to come into the game and use max-pass protection to keep Manning from any further injury, while hoping the defense could keep the Nebraska option attack at bay.  The Cornhuskers took a 7-0 lead after the first quarter and Tennessee never came close to matching up.  Nebraska’s blackshirt defense swallowed the Volunteer offense every drive, while the option offense kept the Volunteer defense off balance.  Nebraska led 14-3 at halftime and put the game away in the fourth, going up 28-3 before Manning got the Vols offense in the end zone with a five yard pass to Price to cut the score to 28-9.  Nebraska then sealed the game with two more touchdowns, before Tee Martin came in the game late to lead the offense to a touchdown and two-point conversion to make it a 42-17 final.  Manning had no real influence on the game, going 21-31 for just 131 yards passing. 

Due to their dominating performance (also possibly in honor of Coach Osborne), Nebraska was named the National Championship under the Coaches poll.  With Michigan winning the Rose Bowl over Washington State, the Wolverines were named the National Champions under the AP.  Once again, the Bowl Alliance system had provided a split National Champion.  This broken system ended after 1997 to bring forth the first version of the BCS System we have today.

Even with the blowout loss to Nebraska, Tennessee fans could keep their chins up in that they were able to watch a true legend play quarterback for four years.  Tennessee had climbed up to become a Top 5 program and 10-win seasons had become the benchmark.  The 1997 Volunteers were one of the most talented teams in program history, broke numerous records, and would eventually send up to 15 members of the team to the NFL, including several Pro-Bowlers. 

Everyone knows Peyton Manning’s story from here on out; a number one draft choice by the Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl winner, NFL’s only four-time MVP, and without a doubt a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer.  The man was and always will be a Tennessee legend for his feats on the playing field, but it was his attitude in how he played the game and enjoyed being a student athlete that made everyone wearing orange proud.  Manning would later in the 1998 Spring game have his #16 jersey retired, and in 2005 see his #16 retired for good while being inducted on the Neyland Stadium circle of fame.  Fourteen years after his college playing days, he is still the University’s most well known ambassador. 

(Tribute to Peyton Manning: )

With so many players graduating, the media and Tennessee fans thought 1998 would fall back into a rebuilding year.  Little did we know, we would soon find ourselves climbing to the pinnacle. 

Until next time, GBO!