By Tom Mattingly
Over the years, there have been Tennessee football games that have taken fans’ breath away, games that always seem to be at the ready in the mind’s eye. Fans recall at a moment’s notice exactly where they were and what they were thinking when significant events happened.
One of the greatest comebacks in Tennessee history came during the 1991 contest at Notre Dame. The Vols visited South Bend for the 300th game at Notre Dame’s storied stadium. Notre Dame was in the national championship hunt, as always, and headed toward a big bowl game. Notre Dame had won 34-29 a year earlier in Knoxville.
The game matched teams descended from the lineage of Knute Rockne and Bob Neyland, squaring off on the famed Irish greensward on a cold but otherwise perfect November day.
Notre Dame looked prepared to win handily, leading the Vols 31-7 in the second quarter.
Just before halftime, the Vols began to rally, as Daryl Hardy blocked a field goal, and Floyd Miley took the pigskin seventy-six yards for a score with 14 seconds left. Remember Gen. Neyland’s Maxim No. 6? “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.” It was 31-14 at the half, and the Vols had a glimmer of hope.
The Vols continued to rally in the second half, cutting the margin to 34-28 in the fourth quarter.
The Vols were headed to the north end of the field, toward “Touchdown Jesus,” facing second down at the 26-yard line. With Notre Dame blitzing both safeties, quarterback Andy Kelly found freshman running back Aaron Hayden in the left flat with nothing but Northern Indiana grass in front of him.
Hayden wasn’t so sure about the play. “To be truthful,” he said, “I didn’t know if it was going to work. I didn’t think it was a very good call. Then I got the ball, and it was perfection.”
The clock showed 4:03 to go.
No one expected the Fighting Irish to fold their tents. Notre Dame rallied, as the game came down to the final seconds. They needed a field goal to win. Placekicker Craig Hentrich had been injured earlier in the half, so sophomore walk-on kicker Rob Leonard of Decatur, Ga., stepped into the spotlight. It was a chip shot, twenty-six yards, from the near hash mark.
“The pressure will be on this young sophomore,” Ward said, the intensity rising in his voice. “Four seconds remain in the game. Holding will be Sexton. Snapping will be Johnson. It will be right at twenty-seven yards.”
In the lower east stands at that end of the field, Jack Williams, today retired Vice-President for Development and Alumni Affairs for the University of Tennessee System, snapped the shutter on his camera at exactly the right moment.
“The kick is up. The kick is good!” Ward said.
(Check that. “Check, Check, Check,” as Majors always said when something went awry in practice. Hearts stopped for a second wherever Vols fans were.)
Then came Ward’s make-up call.
“No! It is no good! It is no good!”
Vols fans instinctively looked for a flag on that play, given that penalty flags seemed to appear as if by magic when the Fighting Irish were in trouble. None appeared from the SEC crew officiating the game.
Vol defensive back Jeremy Lincoln, lined up on the right side of the defensive formation, blocked the kick with his rump to save the come-from-behind triumph. He got there so quickly that he almost overran the kick. Lincoln, who had come to Knoxville from Toledo, Ohio, thanked his mother after the game for the size of his backside.
There are stories about Tennessee fans who left the game early, maybe even before halftime, and headed home, the deficit being too much for them to deal with. Down I-65 they went. They couldn’t believe Notre Dame would blow a big lead. Conversely, they didn’t believe the Vols had that big a comeback left in them.
About the time more than a few fans were passing Indianapolis with the radio keeping them abreast of the action, the realization hit. They were probably arguing about whose decision it was to leave. They realized they had missed a memorable moment in Tennessee history.
“Tennessee beats Notre Dame 35-34,” Ward said. “The Volunteers go home victorious. Notre Dame goes with the sophomore replacement kicker. It is no good, off to the right. The coaching staff to our left is jubilant, as are Tennessee fans. You… could… not… write… this… script.”
The Vols had added a significant chapter to the history of Tennessee football. Thirty years’ time has not diminished the game’s impact.