Friday, December 13, 2002
1991 Tennessee 23, Virginia 22
By Dan O'Sullivan
There may have been Sugar Bowl games of greater importance. But few matched the drama of the 1991 contest between Tennessee and Virginia, which featured one of the most exciting comebacks in bowl history.
Junior Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly played a major role in the nail-biter. A native of Dayton, Tenn., it was fitting that he would star in a big game for his beloved Volunteers.
"When I was really small, even before I had gone to games in Knoxville, my grandparents would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up," he said. "I never said anything about a job or anything like that. I always told them I was going to be quarterback at Tennessee."
Tennessee, celebrating the 100th anniversary of its football program, carried an 8-2-2 record to New Orleans. Virginia limped in at 8-3 after winning its first seven games and holding the AP's No. 1 ranking for three weeks in October.
Based on the first half of play, the Cavaliers looked like the stronger team by far. They held the ball for 22 of 30 minutes, as running backs Nikki Fisher and Terry Kirby combined for over 100 rushing yards. All-American quarterback Shawn Moore was also sharp, and Virginia took a 16-0 advantage into the locker room.
Tennessee finally got on the board on Greg Burke's 27-yard field goal early in the third. The Cavs still led 16-3 late in the quarter when cornerback Floyd Miley intercepted a Moore pass at the Vols' 6-yard line.
The previously dormant Tennessee offense then came alive, marching 94 yards to reduce the deficit to 16-10 early in the fourth. Running back Tony Thompson led the way, gaining 80 yards on the drive and scoring on a 7-yard run. Kelly credited coach Johnny Majors and his staff for sticking with the run even when the team fell behind.
"I think we did a good job of not getting away from our game plan or panicking," he said. "The coaches had confidence that if we kept plugging along and doing the same things we'd done all year long, we'd make something happen."
On its next drive, Virginia added a field goal to go up 19-10. Tennessee answered with an 80-yard scoring drive, capped by a 15-yard Kelly-to-Carl Pickens touchdown pass. The Cavs again responded with a field goal to set the score at 22-17 with 2:31 left.
But Tennessee refused to quit. Starting from their 21, the Vols moved downfield largely on Kelly's 7-of-9 passing for 64 yards. With less than a minute left, they faced third-and-goal from Virginia's 1. The handoff went to Thompson, who hurdled into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 31 seconds on the clock. Thompson, who ran for a game-high 151 yards, was one of the team's true leaders, according to Kelly.
"Not a very vocal guy," said Kelly, "but I think everyone looked up to Tony because he was one of the smallest guys on the field but had one of the biggest hearts. So it wasn't really any surprise when he'd go out and have big games."
Tennessee failed on the succeeding two-point attempt, but held on for a 23-22 victory. Kelly had saved his best for the fourth quarter, completing 14 of 18 passes for 143 yards and leading his team to a Sugar Bowl-record 20 points.
"As soon as it was over, I was jumping up and down like a little girl," said Kelly, the player of the game. "It was a big thrill, not only to win the game but to win the Sugar Bowl. We realized that was a big game for Tennessee and for the SEC."
Kelly played one more year in Knoxville, then went on to a pro career that has included failed tryouts with NFL teams, two years with the Rhein Fire of the World League, and now, back home with the Nashville Kats of the Arena Football League.