“It’s been about ready to bite us in the butt,” Volunteers head coach Philip Fulmer said, “and it bit us tonight.”
Actually, the Memphis Tigers did the biting in one of college football’s biggest upsets.
The 26-point underdogs, a 4-7 team, knocked off No. 6 Tennessee and Peyton Manning 21-17 on Nov. 9, 1996 — the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
And Memphis did it despite 83 yards of total offense. On national television. In front of a record home crowd (65,885). Against a Southeastern Conference team with a 40-1 record in November since 1985.
”I’m not sure I can find the words to explain this,” Lane Rawlins said after the game. ”I don’t know.”
“I told [my wife] Cheryl, ‘Take me to meet my maker,'” Tigers booster Rick Summers said in 2006. “It was a glorious day.”
With Tennessee’s running game stalled, the Tigers harassed Manning all day. A 76-yard interception set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Tigers quarterback Qadry Anderson in the second quarter to tie the game at 7.
Tennessee appeared to take control on the opening drive of the third quarter. Manning’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Jay Graham gave the Vols a 14-7 lead.
That’s when the game turned on another big play.
Kevin Cobb returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14.
“Suddenly, everything had changed,” Geoff Calkins wrote the next day for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “The game felt different. A sloppy game turned interesting. An interesting game turned unforgettable.”
A field goal gave Tennessee a 17-14 lead with 6:01 remaining, but the offensively-challenged Tigers marched 70 yards for the winning touchdown.
Anderson hit Chancy Carr for a 41-yard completion, Jeremy Scruggs rambled up the middle for 13 yards and Anderson’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Chris Powers with 34 seconds remaining gave Memphis an improbable lead.
”They were always this team you saw on television that was bigger than you and stronger than you,” Memphis center Ken Newton said after the game. ”Well, now we knew they weren’t.”
Tennessee’s last gasp ended with Manning on the turf and Memphis rushed the field to tear down the goal posts.
“I think George Lapides said the key to victory for Tennessee was not to miss the bus to the stadium,” Powers said in 2015.
Tennessee has won the last seven meetings, including 17-16 in 1999, 19-17 in 2000 and 20-16 in 2005. So Memphis’ lone victory against a state rival is remembered among the biggest in school history, along with beating Alabama in 1987 and Florida in 1988.
“Every year, or when Memphis plays Tennessee, I’ll do about three or four interviews,” Cobb said in 2015. “I tell my wife all the time, I’m like, ‘I guess my 15 minutes of fame have lasted 10 years.’ There’s always people talking about it.”
On the cover: Memphis students celebrate the Tigers’ 21-17 victory against Peyton Manning and sixth-ranked Tennessee. (Courtesy University of Memphis Archives)
Middle: Video courtesy of Memphis Athletics via YouTube
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Maine and Marshall
• Tuesday: Massachusetts (UMass) and Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell)
• Wednesday: McNeese and Memphis
• Thursday: Mercer and Merrimack
• Friday: Miami (Ohio) and Michigan Tech