WEDNESDAY, NOV. 14, 2007 — When Vol fans think about the national championship season of 1998, the game played this date nine years ago marks one of the pivotal moments of that campaign, the line drawn in the sand, put up or shut up.
It was Tennessee and Arkansas playing in the rain at Neyland Stadium, with Tennessee ranked No. 1 and Arkansas, in Houston Nutt’s first season, ranked No. 10. Both were undefeated.
Sportswriters ran out of adjectives to describe what was happening. There were enough twists and turns to keep fans on both sides completely into the game. All that was left was for Al Michaels to ask if you believed in miracles.
It was a memorable comeback for the Vols, rain or no rain.
The final was 28-24, but Tennessee had gotten there the hard way, trailing 21-3 at one juncture in the first half. It was 21-10 at the half, after Tee Martin threw a 36-yard pass to Peerless Price. In the second half, the Vols got a touchdown run from Martin, another field goal from Jeff Hall, a safety when the Arkansas punter chased down an errant snap and kicked the ball out of the end zone, and the game-winner from Travis Henry. The Razorbacks mustered a solitary field goal, but that was almost enough.
Things looked bleak for the Vols when Arkansas had the ball near midfield with less than two minutes to go, leading 24-22. The national championship dream looked dead in the water.
Then a miracle happened. Just as high fives were being exchanged wherever Arkansas fans were, Tennessee caught a break, a big one.
Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner brought his team to the line, took the snap and tripped over his right guard, a young man named Brandon Burlsworth. Stoerner attempted to brace his fall with the ball in hand, and the pigskin escaped. There it was, right there on the turf, seemingly within arms reach of Nutt and the Arkansas bench.
Defensive tackle Billy Ratliff had pushed Burlsworth back into Stoerner’s path, thus causing the bobble. What’s more Billy found the elusive football and the Vols had a second chance from the Arkansas 43. It was two big plays in one. It was also a dramatic turnaround. In the gathering darkness of a November evening, the clock showed 1:43.
“I don’t think Arkansas realized there had been a fumble. It must have been three seconds, at least, and I was lucky enough to recover it,” Billy said. “That was a long time. I guess that fumble and recovery amounted to the biggest play of my career.”
The play is an integral part of Vol history, known to orange-shirted partisans as the “Stoerner Stumble.” Tennessee cashed in the turnover with 28 seconds to spare, moving the required distance in five plays, all runs by Henry.
“I am to the point where I believe that nothing is impossible with this group of Vols,” Phillip Fulmer said. “It can be fairly said of them that they will find a way to win. I know I will never doubt them.”
The game was the first of two straight 28-24 games between the two border state schools, with the home team winning both times. In each case, the visiting team went home wondering what might have been.