Notre Dame falls from Rocky Top
By TIM CASEY
Never before had Notre Dame been so exited when trailing in a game.
Down 10-7 late in the first half of Saturday's game against Tennessee, the Irish were in a fortunate position against the defending national champions.
They had rebounded after a Jarious Jackson interception on their first offensive series. And after a missed 25-yard field goal by David Miller late in the first quarter. And after numerous wasted opportunities in good field position.
The Irish didn't let a crowd of 107,619, the second largest in Neyland Stadium history, or the ever-present Rocky Top folk song echoing through the stadium, distract them.
"We were feeling pretty good about ourselves at 10-7," offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said.
Then came a disputed penalty that turned the momentum back to the home team.
With 1:33 left in the first half, on third-and-2 from the Notre Dame 47-yard line, after quarterback Tee Martin threw an incomplete pass intended for Bobby Graham, the referees threw their flags. Defensive end Grant Irons was offsides.
Instead of getting the ball back with a minute remaining, the Irish gave the Vols another chance.
Tennessee took advantage.
Martin connected for a 2-yard touchdown pass to Eric Parker with nine seconds remaining to put the Vols ahead 17-7.
"I didn't feel I was offsides but sometimes the officials have a better viewpoint," Irons said. "I looked at the ball, looked at where I was positioned and thought I was in the correct position. Sometimes you can be overly aggressive and that was the case."
Scoring twice against a defense ranked No. 6 in the country in total defense, yielding 279.3 yards per game, proved to be too difficult as the Vols cruised to a 38-14 victory.
"Give Tennessee credit, they beat us," Bob Davie said. "We made it a game in the first half but that touchdown before the half hurt us."
It didn't take long for Tennessee to get on the scoreboard.
After Raynoch Thompson intercepted Jackson's pass, the Vols had the ball on the Notre Dame 14-yard line. The Irish defense held the Vols to six yards on the three successive plays. But an Alex Walls' 24-yard field goal put Tennessee ahead by three.
The Irish had a chance to tie the game with 33 seconds left in the quarter, but the Notre Dame kicking woes continued as Miller missed wide right.
Before that, on their first three possessions, the Irish started on their 36, 45 and 40-yard line without passing the Tennessee 46-yard line.
"We gave ourselves a chance in the kicking game with the kickoff returns," Davie said. "But we just couldn't capitalize on the field position."
Following Miller's miss, Martin marched the Vols 80 yards down the field in 3:41 culminating with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth.
Miller lined up for another field goal, this time from 23 yards out on the next possession. But when the ball was snapped, holder Joey Getherall (replacing first stringer James Caputo), picked the ball off the ground and ran. His four yard gain gave the Irish the first down from the 4-yard line. Two plays later David Givens scampered in from two yards out, cutting the Tennessee lead 10-7. It was the first rushing touchdown against the Vols defense all year.
Tennessee expanded its lead to 31-7 in the third quarter on a Martin touchdown pass to Leonard Scott and a 40-yard touchdown run by Travis Henry.
Getherall gave the Irish hope late in third, scoring on a reverse. On the ensuing kickoff, Jim Sanson tapped an onside kick straight ahead. Before any Tennessee defenders could get to it, the Notre Dame kicker fell on the ball, giving the Irish a fresh start in the fourth quarter.
"We knew from the first kickoff," Davie said, referring to when he decided to try the onside kick. "We felt like we had a chance to get that. It was just a matter of when we were going to do it in the game."
The Irish responded by marching downto the Tennessee 9-yard line. But on fourth-and-2, Jackson handed off to Fisher up the middle. He was stopped by a yard.
The miscommunicaton of past games was revisited.
"It was a lousy call on my part," Rogers said. "I thought it was a yard (fourth-and-1). We tried to run up the line of scrimmage in an unbalanced formation so they wouldn't get misaligned and call it on the first sound. It was my fault."
Tennessee responded with an 18-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, lasting 9:48 that provided the margin of victory.
"We took our shots," Davie said. "We knew we'd have to step up and do some things to have a chance to make this game competitive. All you ask is that your players play hard and our kids did that."
All Sports Stories for Monday, November 8, 1999