EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth story in a series on the 15 most memorable SEC football games beat writer David Paschall has covered since joining the newspaper in 1990. The games are being presented in chronological order.
Phillip Fulmer served as Tennessee's head football coach for 205 games, nearly matching the program mark of 216 set by the legendary Robert Neyland.
Of Fulmer's 205 contests, only once did he enter the postgame news conference and declare, "I think anything I say would be anticlimactic."
That was his reaction to Tennessee's stirring 28-24 defeat of Arkansas on Nov. 14, 1998, when two 8-0 teams collided inside a rain-soaked Neyland Stadium and provided a finish that will be relived for generations. Fulmer's Volunteers wound up winning that season's inaugural BCS national championship with a 13-0 record, and there was no bigger play along the way than defensive tackle Billy Ratliff causing the stumble and fumble by Razorbacks quarterback Clint Stoerner.
Ratliff not only instigated the fumble but recovered it, resulting in the loudest Neyland noise level I've ever witnessed. I was watching from the sideline when the play unfolded, having spent the previous few minutes collecting plans on how to describe a Tennessee setback that would derail hopes of a first Associated Press national title since 1951.
The 1998 Arkansas-Tennessee game was all Razorbacks early, as a Travis Stephens fumble midway through the first quarter set up a 14-yard touchdown pass from Stoerner to Emmanuel Smith. Arkansas doubled its lead on the first play of the second quarter with Stoerner's 62-yard scoring strike to Anthony Lucas, and an 8-yard scoring connection between Stoerner and Lucas later in the second quarter gave the Razorbacks their largest lead at 21-3.
Lucas would finish the CBS-televised game with eight catches for 172 yards and the two scores.
A 36-yard touchdown pass from Tee Martin to Peerless Price before halftime pulled the Vols within 21-10, and they trailed just 24-22 with 1:54 remaining when a fourth-down pass near midfield from Martin to Price was broken up by the Razorbacks. Tennessee had two timeouts remaining, so Arkansas had the opportunity to run three plays and try to punt the ball inside Tennessee's 20-yard line, leaving the Vols with a long way to go and maybe a minute to get there.
There were some Vols fans who headed for the exits.
"As coaches, you have to coach," Fulmer would say years later on the SEC Network's "Classic Rewind" series. "You don't have the option of leaving the stadium."
After Razorbacks running back Chris Chukwuma was stuffed on first down and Tennessee elected to stop the clock, Ratliff rocketed out of the second-down snap and pushed Arkansas standout guard Brandon Burlsworth back into his quarterback. Stoerner quickly tried to brace himself by planting the ball on the ground, but his momentum resulted in his instant separation from the ball, and Ratliff fell on it at the Arkansas 43-yard line.
"When I saw that — it was a nightmare of a thing," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said afterward.
Given a second life, Tennessee quickly pounced, with Travis Henry reeling off a pair of 15-yard runs and then gaining 11 more to the Arkansas 2. Henry vaulted into the end zone from a yard out with 28 seconds remaining to complete the unlikely triumph and cap his 32-carry, 197-yard performance.
Never have roughly 100,000 water-logged people dressed in orange been so happy.
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