Wilhoit's 50-yarder makes him a hero

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Three minutes and 19 seconds is what separated James Wilhoit Saturday evening from likely recluse to Tennessee player most likely to be treated for back welts. From a botched extra point, to a 50-yard game-winning field goal -- that was the 199-second difference in Wilhoit's legacy and, as it turns out, in the Volunteers' 30-28 victory against Florida.

"I was either going to be sitting here talking about a missed extra point, or making a 50-yard field goal," said the sophomore kicker, as he fidgeted happily on the dais in the postgame interview room.

Providing details about a 50-yarder with six seconds remaining in the annual grudge match between the Vols and Gators is a lot more fun. One problem: Wilhoit barely remembers a thing.

"All I know is it went straight," he said. "When I saw it going in I don't think I thought of anything else except, go wild."

Memory loss happens when you miss your first-ever extra point in college. Wilhoit, a sophomore, had made 50 in a row when he lined up for the chippy with 3:25 remaining in the game. No. 13-ranked Tennessee had just scored on a 13-yard pass from true freshman quarterback Erik Ainge to Jayson Swain, and converted three third-down plays and one fourth-down play in the 90-yard drive to do it. Now they'd tie the game and ...

But Wilhoit pushed the ball right, causing a record Neyland Stadium crowd of 109,061 to seek immediate therapy, or swigs of stashed Southern Comfort. When Wilhoit returned to the sideline, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer pulled him aside.

"You're going to win this football game," he told Wilhoit.

Whether Fulmer believed his own pep talk is open to discussion. No. 9-ranked Florida had the ball, had the lead, and had the most poised quarterback this side of anything in the NFL. Leak, only a sophomore, is cooler than freon. You don't know whether he's a quarterback or an ice sculpture.

Leak completed 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. His previous scoring pass, which gave the Gators a 28-21 lead with 7:43 left to play, was an 81-yarder that skipped off the fingertips of Vols safety Brandon Johnson and into the hands of Chad Jackson. Now Leak was in charge of squeezing the life out of the clock and UT.

He did what he could. The Gators picked up one first down and forced Tennessee to use its final timeout. But Leak couldn't block too, which explains why Florida's drive stalled after several failed running plays, followed by a disastrous personal foul penalty on wide receiver Dallas Baker ("Somebody hit our guys and we retaliated," said Florida coach Ron Zook. "They always get the second guy.").

The rest is now being prepared for the scrapbooks of Wilhoit, Ainge and Fulmer.

Ainge, who got most of the second-half snaps over the Vols' other true freshman QB, Brent Schaeffer, found his new best friend, wide receiver Chris Hannon, for completions of 21 and 7 yards on the final drive. The 7-yarder put the ball on the
Florida 33 with less than 20 seconds remaining.

Meanwhile, Fulmer was having another chat with his place-kicker.

"James, where you good from?" said Fulmer.

"I'm good from here," said Wilhoit, pointing to the 40-yard line.

Rather than risk a mistake, Fulmer ordered Ainge to spike the ball on third down. Then he sent Wilhoit back onto the field. Redemption or depression, those were the only two results available.

"I really didn't have time to think," said Wilhoit. "By the time I got out there all my emotions were shot."

And that was before the kick. You should have seen him afterward, running around the field like Jim Valvano after North Carolina State won the Final Four.

Ainge, who finished with three touchdown passes of his own, also suffered from lack of memory recall and drained emotions.

"You're just kind of playing," he said. "You really don't know what's going on. I knew we had time to get the ball back and make something happen."

Ainge made something happen, all right. ("He won't any problem getting a date, I bet," said Fulmer.) Tennessee improved to 2-0 and put a small stake in 1-1 Florida's SEC East Division heart. Until further notice, the race in the East belongs to Georgia and the Vols.

"We just have to put this past us," said Gators running back Ciatrick Fason. "Coach Zook told us this is going to hurt. Both tonight and tomorrow."

And probably for a few more days after that, too. The good news: Tennessee beat Florida last year and the Gators finished just fine.

About 10 minutes after the game, Fulmer's family filed into the media room and found a place to the side of the stage. One of his daughters, Courtney, slumped forward and shook her head.

"I'm exhausted," she said.

Wilhoit knows the feeling.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com.