Hogs stumbled after 8-0
What ifs linger about game that slipped away
FAYETTEVILLE — Anthony Lucas can’t help but look back and wonder what might have been for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
“Every year whenever the national championship game comes around in January, I always picture how it would have been if we had been playing in that game,” said Lucas, a wide receiver for the Razorbacks from 1995-99 and now an assistant coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock. “I’m like, ‘Gosh almighty, I wish we could have played on that stage.’”
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville football team found itself on a pretty big stage Nov. 14, 1998.
After finishing 4-7 the previous two seasons and being picked last in the SEC West, the Razorbacks were ranked No. 10 in Houston Nutt’s first season as their coach going into a showdown with No. 1 Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.
Both teams were 8-0, and the game was televised nationally on CBS.
“We were in the locker room before the game and coach Nutt was telling us, ‘You hear that men?’ ” said Kenoy Kennedy, an All-SEC safety for the Razorbacks in 1998 and 1999. “We could hear that Tennessee crowd roaring.
“Coach Nutt said, ‘You know how you quiet 100,000? You beat those 11 on the field.’
“That’s one thing that has stuck with me over the years. We did keep those fans quiet for a good part of that game.”
But in a bitter ending for the Razorbacks, the Vols and their fans were able to celebrate Tennessee’s improbable 28-24 victory.
“That was the best game of my career,” said Clint Stoerner, Arkansas’ starting quarterback from 1997-1999 and now an SEC Network analyst. “Unfortunately, it was the worst game of my career, too, because of the way it ended.”
Stoerner threw three touchdown passes — one to Emanuel Smith and two to Lucas — as Arkansas jumped out to a 21-3 halftime lead.
Tennessee pulled within 24-22 with 2:56 left in the fourth quarter after Benji Mahan’s snap on fourthand-1 from the Arkansas 41 sailed over the head of punter Chris Akin, who kicked the ball out of bounds in the end zone for a safety.
After Arkansas kicked off, Peerless Price’s 33-yard return gave the Vols possession at their 49, but the Razorbacks stopped Tennessee on downs.
Arkansas needed one first down to clinch the victory or could run the clock down to a few seconds and punt the Vols deep into their own territory.
Either scenario looked bad for Tennessee.
After tailback Chrys Chukwuma was dropped for a 2-yard loss, the Razorbacks faced second-and-12 from their 49.
Nutt called for a bootleg run by Stoerner, whose plan was to keep the ball and use up as much time as possible before going down inbounds.
“All we were trying to do was run out the clock,” Nutt said recently. “It was just an unfortunate deal there what happened at the end.
“You always replay it in your mind and wish we’d run something else. But sometimes it just is what it is.”
As Stoerner ran back, he tripped over the foot of Ar- kansas All-American guard Brandon Burlsworth.
Stoerner slipped on the grass field — wet from a steady rain throughout — and when he reached down to try to regain his balance, the ball came loose.
Tennessee defensive lineman Billy Ratliff recovered the fumble at the Arkansas 43 with 1:43 left.
“The only thing that saved us was a miracle,” Vols offensive lineman Cosey Coleman said after the game. “That’s the only way to explain it because we pretty much had lost the game.
“It was definitely a miracle that happened. It was nothing we did. It was just something that happened.”
Tennessee tailback Travis Henry took over after the fumble.
Henry carried the ball on five consecutive plays — starting with runs of 15, 15 and 11 yards — culminated by his 1-yard game-winning touchdown with 28 seconds left.
“When we got the ball back, my adrenaline started flowing,” Henry said after the game. “I knew they were going to give me the ball and I was going to do it. I was going to run hard.”
Nutt said he wished he had called a timeout to give the defense a chance to gather itself mentally after Stoerner’s
“We were in such disarray,” Nutt said. “I could see in the defensive players’ faces — ‘Dadgum, we just got through stopping them and now we have to go back out there.’”
Kennedy, who lives in Forney, Texas, and manages several businesses, said there was a sense of disbelief among the defensive players.
“I think we were a little bit shellshocked going back onto the field,” Kennedy said. “We felt like we had the game sewed up.
“We were sitting on the bench drinking Gatorade and then it’s like, ‘Hey, defense, you’re up!’
“You’re thinking, ‘What happened? Why are we back out here?’ You’re not necessarily concentrating on what you need to do. You’re still absorbing what happened and trying to figure out what’s going on.”
It wasn’t a surprise Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe decided to keep feeding the ball to Henry, who ran effectively the entire game.
Henry, listed at 5-11 and 220 pounds, finished with 32 carries for 197 yards.
“If he’s 220, 200 of it’s from the waist down,” Arkansas defensive coordinator
Keith Burns said of Henry’s bruising style.
Several Razorbacks struggled to come to grips with the outcome immediately after the game.
“They didn’t earn it in no way, form or fashion,” Arkansas linebacker C.J. McLain said. “We handed it to them.”
Center Grant Garrett said the Razorbacks didn’t lose as much as the clock ran out on them.
“I’d give anything for two more minutes,” Garrett said. “Go tell ’em to meet us on the field.”
Defensive tackle Ryan Hale gave the Vols credit.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” Hale said. “When you’re the No. 1 team, you make plays when you’ve got to make them. That’s what Tennessee did.”
Stoerner, who completed 17-of-34 passes for 274 yards, talked about his fumble over and over again in the locker room as groups of reporters kept stopping at his locker to ask what happened.
“We had the No. 1 team in the country beat and I couldn’t hold onto the ball,” Stoerner said. “It all boils down to that.
“‘It’s tough, man. Seventy guys put the ball in my hands to hold onto it and I lost it. They didn’t ask me to throw a 40-yard touchdown. They didn’t ask me to throw the ball over everybody’s head.
“All I had to do was hold onto it. It’s tough to swallow when you can’t do that.”
Stoerner answered every question after the game until there weren’t anymore.
“That was just the way I was raised, to not run from adversity so to speak,” he said recently. “Face up to what happened.
“The media was there to talk to me, so I talked to them. That’s part of being the Arkansas quarterback.”
Lucas said he wasn’t surprised about how Stoerner handled the postgame interviews.
“Clint’s always been a stand-up guy,” Lucas said. “I felt bad for him, but we all had his back. We kept encouraging him.
“We stood behind our quarterback, and that’s what a team’s supposed to do. Coach Nutt wasn’t going to let us point the finger at anybody. We stuck together.”
Kennedy said it was a quiet flight home.
“Everybody was numb,” he said. “You think about every play that you were on the field. Every play you made and every play you didn’t make.
“You rerun it all in your head and try to figure out what you could have done different to change the outcome of the game.
“We played well as a defense overall, but we had a chance to stop those guys after the fumble and we let them go down and score.
“That’s one of those things that still haunts me to this day.”
Stoerner said he had to respectfully disagree with Kennedy’s thoughts about the defense having a letdown.
“I thought our defense played a hell of game,” Stoerner said. “We put them in some bad situations, and they answered the bell.
“But sudden-change football at the end is a beast. You just can’t put your defense in that position.”
Kennedy remembered being on the sideline after Tennessee went ahead 28-24 and wanting to make sure he didn’t show his emotions.
“I was trying to keep my composure and not cry on the sideline, because you see all these cameras pointing at you,” he said. “You don’t want everybody to see you crying, so you’re trying as hard as you can to hold it together.
“As bad as it hurts, you just try to hold it in.”
Stoerner said as disappointed
as he was about the fumble, he didn’t realize the enormity of how it would be viewed by others until later.
“Obviously, I wish it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “But for me as a player, it was part of the game.
“It doesn’t blow my mind that it happened. I think other people made it a bigger deal out of it than I do.
“For me it was unfortunate that I fumbled, but I understood other things went wrong in that game for us to lose it. So I guess I wasn’t as devastated as everybody else because I was there in the moment. I was part of the entire game, not just that one play.”
The Razorbacks finished the 1998 season 9-3 and played in the Citrus Bowl, where they lost to Michigan and quarterback Tom Brady 45-31.
“It was a great season for our team,” Stoerner said. “It was a great story as far as us rebounding from a four-win season the year before.
“But, unfortunately, it’s all overshadowed by one play.”
The week after the Tennessee game the Razorbacks lost 22-21 at Mississippi State when Brian Hazelwood hit a 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
Arkansas played without its No. 1 placekicker, Todd Latourette, who was suspended for disciplinary reasons after a DWI arrest. Without Latourette, Nutt chose to pass on a field goal attempt late in the game when the Razorbacks were stopped on downs.
If the Razorbacks had beaten Tennessee or Mississippi State, they would have had a rematch with the Vols in the SEC Championship Game.
Instead, Tennessee beat Mississippi State 24-14 in Atlanta to earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where the Vols beat Florida State 23-16 to finish 13-0.
“Can you imagine what that game would have been like if we had played Tennessee again in Atlanta?” Lucas said. “I really think we would have had a chance to compete for the national championship that year.”
Stoerner said he’s often had the same thought about how winning at Tennessee could have changed the course of Arkansas’ season.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Stoerner said. “I think anybody that tells you they don’t is just lying to you. I think about that stuff all the time, but I don’t lose sleep over it.
“It just wasn’t meant to be for me that day.”
Arkansas’ Clint Stoerner fumbles the ball in the closing minutes of play against Tennessee turning the ball over in Knoxville on Nov. 14, 1998.
with eight catches for 172 yards. had two touchdown catches in the first half as the Razorbacks took a 21-3 lead. Lucas finished
After the Arkansas fumble with 1:43 remaining, Tennessee running back Travis Henry (20) ran the ball on five consecutive plays, including a 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining.