Another tough road game, another heart-stopping finish, another big comeback hero.
But this time the roles were reversed, and it was the senior quarterback, David Norrie, who came off the bench in relief of junior Matt Stevens to save the day as UCLA rallied to tie Tennessee, 26-26, with two eight-point touchdowns in the last five minutes.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of 94,370 at Neyland Stadium Saturday, the Bruins put a whirlwind finish on a game that Tennessee was dominating behind the impressive play of senior quarterback Tony Robinson.
The standout player for UCLA was sophomore tailback Gaston Green, who gained a career-high 194 yards, getting the Bruins off to a big start with a 72-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game.
Robinson, showing an uncanny ability to turn busted plays into big gains, set a single-game Tennessee passing record with 387 yards and a single-game total offense record with 417 yards, completing 25 of 35 passes without giving up an interception.
Interceptions proved to be Stevens’ undoing. He lost three passes to the Volunteer secondary before Norrie took over. And then Norrie’s first series ended when Volunteer safety Chris White made his third interception of the day.
“When I first went into the game (with 11:57 to play and the Bruins trailing, 26-10), I felt like we had plenty of time to win it, but after that interception, I was really upset with myself,” Norrie said.
“When we got the ball back, it was on our three, and things looked pretty grim.”
It looked even more grim for the Bruins when it was third down and they were still on their three. But that was when Norrie found split end Mike Sherrard on the left sideline with a pass that was good for 44 yards and a drastic swing of momentum.
The Volunteers, who had been on the plus side of all the mistakes and turnovers, seemed to get a little rattled. On the next two plays, the Bruins gained 13 yards on a pass-interference call and 5 yards on a face-mask penalty, along with the 10 yards Norrie had picked up on the scramble leading to the penalty.
With 4:46 left, Norrie passed 8 yards to backup flanker Al Wilson for a touchdown, and the rally was on. The two-point conversion pass went to backup tight end Jeff Nowinski, who had never before caught a pass for the Bruins. Now, UCLA trailed, 26-18.
Tennessee punted the ball back to the Bruins with 1:43 to play.
Starting from the UCLA 27, Norrie moved the Bruins quickly downfield, using just one timeout, and scored on a 25-yard pass to Willie (Flipper) Anderson. It was the first catch that Anderson had ever made for the Bruins.
The two-point conversion for the tying points was a sweep around right end by Green.
Green said: “It was the same play we used at BYU last week (on a two-point conversion in a 27-24 win) and the same play we used on my first run.”
Green’s first run matched his 72-yard touchdown run in the Fiesta Bowl last New Year’s Day.
Green said that the long run felt good but that the two-point play that tied the game with 37 seconds left felt even better.
“I felt all along that we were going to come back like that,” Green said, making it unanimous among Bruin players and coaches on that point.
As Norrie said: “We’ve seen this happen before. Our ancestors have shown us that a game is never over until it’s over. We’ve played lots of close games like this.”
UCLA does specialize in last-minute, big-play endings--seemingly, week in and week out. But there was a game two years ago that was in some respects very much like this one. In a game at the Rose Bowl against Arizona State, UCLA was trailing, 26-10, in the final quarter, just as the Bruins were trailing, 26-10, here Saturday. Against Arizona State, Rick Neuheisel directed the team to two eight-point touchdowns to get the tie, and then Arizona State Coach Darryl Rogers left himself open to criticism by playing it conservatively, preserving the tie instead of putting the ball up and going for the victory.
Saturday, however, Tennessee went for it, putting the ball in the air in the final seconds. The Volunteers risked an interception trying for the big play--and got neither.
Donahue said: “We were lucky, on one hand, to come back and get the 16 points for the tie, but on the other hand, I’m still disappointed that we didn’t win it. In those last 30 seconds, I was sure we’d get a pick (interception) so we could get a field goal from John Lee to win it.
“I just felt like that was what was going to happen.”
Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors said: “If you stay in the coaching game long enough, you can see anything and everything. I thought both teams showed a lot of courage and determination in being able to bounce back in the game. . . .
“The third-and-10 play from the three by UCLA was a very big play. But there were a lot of big plays in the game, and it was a heck of a job by UCLA to tie. . . .
“I’ve never been in a game quite like it, where each team was involved with big plays and big decisions. It was a tremendous guessing game, especially with us on offense, because it was difficult to come up with the right strategy against their type of defense.”
It wasn’t much of a defensive game on either side, with Tennessee rolling up 510 yards and UCLA 484.
What it was, was a wide-open, anything-goes game.
The first half was a mad scramble that ended with Tennessee leading, 13-10.
There was Green’s big run, then a couple of fumbles lost back-and-forth, a 39-yard field goal by Lee, a surprise 49-yard field goal by Tennessee’s Carlos Reveiz (on his first kick now that he has replaced his older brother, Fuad), a short touchdown pass to Tennessee tight end Tim Hendrix after a drive fraught with Bruin errors and penalties, White’s first interception of a pass from Stevens, a 33-yard field goal by Reveiz and, finally, White’s second interception of a pass by Stevens.
Never a dull moment.
The second half began for the Volunteers much the way the first half had begun for the Bruins. On the third play, Robinson struck with a 68-yard pass play for a touchdown to wingback Joey Clinkscales, making it 20-10.
Bruin free safety James Washington, who was picking himself up off the ground as Clinkscales spun at the 20-yard line and headed for the end zone, said that he thought there should have been an offensive interference call.
“He definitely pushed off,” Washington said. “But I still feel I let the team down. I broke for the ball. I just never should have let him make a big gain like that. That’s my responsibility.”
The Bruins came back with a strong drive, only to have it end when Stevens threw his third straight interception.
UCLA moved from its own 10-yard line to the Tennessee 8 as Green carried 8 times for 57 yards. But when Stevens went for the score on a pass into the end zone, the pass was picked off by Victor Peppers.
“I thought Matt Stevens looked very, very good for us early, before the ball started floating on him,” Donahue said. “It was a long day at the office for him to come away with nothing--well, I guess a tie is something.
“What really hurt was that wonderful drive that came away with nothing. It was really a punishing-type drive, and then we threw the interception. That was reminiscent of last week.”
At BYU, Norrie threw an interception into the end zone at the end of the first half after driving into scoring position.
Tennessee got the ball back with 8:08 to play in the third period and played a ball-control game for the rest of the quarter, scoring on a 31-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
When Stevens’ final drive of the day went nowhere, Robinson wasted no time in getting his team set up for the 40-yard field goal that made it 26-10.
After that, Donahue turned the game over to Norrie.
“I was particularly pleased that this week David Norrie had a chance to get back in the sunshine,” Donahue said. “Last week, Stevens won it for us, and this week David got to come back.
“I’ve said all along that we are going to need both quarterbacks.”
Donahue said that there was no significance to the fact that the crucial scoring passes at the end of the game were directed to players who have not done much for UCLA in the past. There was no element of surprise or any deep tactical concern.
“We just played a lot of players today,” Donahue said. “We had the whole second string in there on a couple of occasions. UCLA is a very young team, and we need that experience to grow.
“It’s not that we didn’t want to play well here, but we wanted to get players like Flipper (Anderson), Paco (Craig) and Al Wilson some passes. We also used three tight ends and our second offensive line. It’s good for them to get some experience in a hostile environment like this.
“It was pretty hot in the first half, too. So we knew we would use a lot of players.”
Donahue did not make any kind of a statement about who would start at quarterback next week, but neither Stevens nor Norrie seemed to be pressing the point.
When Norrie came off the field after directing the tying drive, Stevens was the first to hug him.
“The important thing was getting those points,” Norrie said. “Under the circumstances, the team wasn’t overjoyed about not winning. But we were all happy to get the tie.”