Hogs stum­bled af­ter 8-0

What ifs linger about game that slipped away

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BOB HOLT

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

fum­ble.

“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 Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

Arkansas’ Clint Sto­erner fum­bles the ball in the clos­ing min­utes of play against Ten­nessee turn­ing the ball over in Knoxville on Nov. 14, 1998.

DAVID GOTTSCHALK/Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette

with eight catches for 172 yards. had two touch­down catches in the first half as the Ra­zor­backs took a 21-3 lead. Lu­cas fin­ished

DAVID GOTTSCHALK/Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette

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.

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