It was a miracle Travis Henry could hear anything besides the beating of his heart, so loud were the 106,365 fans crammed into Neyland Stadium as the Tennessee Volunteers mounted a frantic push to preserve their perfect record and No. 1 ranking. Somehow, through the din, he heard his instructions loud and clear.
“The offensive line said, ‘Travis, take us to the promised land,’ ” the sophomore tailback said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it.’ ”
Henry’s determination and no-frills, straight-ahead running took them to the end zone with 28 seconds to play, capping a remarkable rally that gave Tennessee a 28-24 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday. Henry’s one-yard plunge was the last of his career-high 197 yards, 43 of them in a climactic sequence that included a bad snap by Arkansas on a punt, a Tennessee safety and an Arkansas fumble with less than three minutes on the clock.
“Do I believe in miracles?” said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team’s 9-0 record (6-0 in the Southeastern Conference) is its best since a 10-0 finish in 1956. “I believe in determination. Our kids were very determined at halftime. I do believe in destiny.”
Was it destiny or a rain-slick field that caused Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner to stumble and fumble the ball at the Razorback 49-yard line with 1:43 to play, allowing Billy Ratliff to recover the ball and put the Volunteers in position for their game-winning drive? Was it fate or simple logic that decreed that, with 10th-ranked Arkansas (8-1, 5-1) blitzing and stifling the Volunteer passing game, Fulmer would turn to Henry, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound bundle of power who capitalized on splendid blocking by his offensive linemen and pounded the Razorbacks into submission?
The Razorbacks couldn’t say. They were still too emotionally devastated to analyze what had hit them.
“We played the number-one team in the country and got a chance to beat them. We should have beat them,” said Stoerner, who was 17 for 34 for 274 yards and connected for all three of his touchdowns in the first half. “They beat us on one play. It’s all on my shoulders. If I fall on the ball, we win it. I couldn’t do it.
“It was a sprint-out pass and I was going to keep it, and somehow I dropped it. I went to the ground and put one hand down to catch myself, and with the other one I just lost it. I don’t know what happened.”
Said Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt: “I hate to lose one like that. I’ve never lost one like that. I thought we dodged a bullet on the safety. . . . Then our defense stops them and we can’t run out 1:40.”
The Razorbacks had done so much so well until then, sprinting to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on a 14-yard pass by Stoerner to Emanuel Smith and a 62-yard pass play to Anthony Lucas, who made a superb catch, then ran for a score. A 41-yard field goal by Jeff Hall--who had hit the left goal post on a 49-yard attempt in the first quarter--cut Arkansas’ lead to 14-3, but the Razorbacks scored on their next possession when Stoerner found Lucas in the corner of the end zone for an eight-yard pass.
Tennessee fortified its confidence when Tee Martin threw his only touchdown pass of the game, hitting Peerless Price deep in the end zone with 2:03 left in the half after Price eluded cornerback Orlando Green, but the Volunteers faced daunting odds in addition to a 21-10 deficit. Arkansas had outscored its opponents, 164-47, in the second half of its previous games, and Fulmer knew he had to find ways to stop the Razorback ground game.
“We had to stop the run or they were going to run the clock,” Fulmer said. “We said the first five minutes of the second half were going to be the tempo-setter. Our kids were very calm. There’s no quit in these kids. They kept coming and coming.”
After Arkansas recovered a fumbled punt return, Todd Latourette made a 33-yard field goal to pad the Razorback lead to 24-10. The Volunteers, however, pulled closer on their next possession, when Henry gained 56 yards in six carries and Martin applied the final flourish with a four-yard touchdown run.
Hall made a 21-yard field goal with 57 seconds left in the third quarter to pare Arkansas’ lead to 24-20, but Tennessee was stopped on its first two possessions of the fourth quarter. Although time was becoming a factor, the Volunteers’ faith never wavered. “Their defense was getting weaker the whole game,” said Henry, who has exceeded 100 yards in three of his last four games and has rushed 83 times for 510 yards in his last four games. “I just kept running hard, running north and south, all night long.”
The bad snap and safety gave the Volunteers hope. Although Martin threw three incomplete passes on their next possession, they got a final shot when Stoerner fumbled the ball and Ratliff recovered and Tennessee took over at Arkansas’ 43. That set the stage for Henry, who pierced Arkansas’ defense with five consecutive powerful runs for 43 yards and sent the orange-clad fans into a frenzy.
“I just kept the ball tight and ran hard,” said Henry, who considered transferring last summer but stayed after consulting his mother and friends. “I felt good and the offensive line blocked well all night. I just concentrated on holding the ball and I kept moving my legs.”
Arkansas regained the ball with 28 seconds to play and got to its 49 before time ran out. As the rain-drenched but happy fans descended on the streets of Knoxville, the Volunteers marveled at their good fortune.
“We were very shocked to get the ball back [on the fumble] but we knew if we got enough opportunities, we were going to take advantage of it,” Henry said. “When we got it back, we knew it was do or die.”
They did. And their national-title hopes didn’t die.