Tenn. butts Irish from title picture, 35-34 Vols deflect late kick, rally from 24 down

November 10, 1991|By Gene Wojciechowski | Gene Wojciechowski,Los Angeles Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His moment of glory reserved, his place among Rockne and the Gipper available for the taking, Rob Leonard stepped onto the Notre Dame Stadium field yesterday afternoon and tried to kick his way into Fighting Irish folklore.

Separating him from history was 27 yards and, as it turns out, the rear end of Tennessee defensive back Jeremy Lincoln.

Leonard, a second-string walk-on, was not summoned until Tennessee owned a 35-34 lead, until four seconds remained on the scoreboard clock, until team trainers told Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz for the millionth time that starting kicker Craig Hentrich was out with a sprained right knee.

This is where Lincoln came in.

Lincoln sprinted past his would-be blocker and actually overran the ball as Leonard kicked. But, as luck would have it, the ball caromed off Lincoln's right buttock, cartwheeled toward the goalposts and missed wide right. A one-point victory was Tennessee's, though nobody, including Holtz or Volunteers coach Johnny Majors, knows how.

"I've been in this game a long time, and that was as difficult a loss as I've ever been associated with -- ever," Holtz said. "It's the most disappointed I've ever been in my life."

And this from Majors: "I can't describe in words the meaning of this win and the way it happened."

He is not the only one. Somehow, the Volunteers overcame a 24-point deficit, survived four turnovers -- three of which resulted in Notre Dame touchdowns -- weathered a 315-yard performance by Irish rushers and endured a Notre Dame Stadium crowd eager to see its team improve its national championship chances.

Yes, well, say goodbye to Notre Dame's title hopes. The No. 5-ranked Irish (8-2) were done in by No. 13 Tennessee (6-2), as well as a variety of other strange developments.

For instance, what are the chances of someone's puffy bottom blocking a field-goal attempt?

"Whenever I go home, my mom teases me about my big butt," Lincoln said. "Today, my big butt paid off."

What are the chances of Leonard, who is not even listed in the Notre Dame media guide and who has attempted a grand total of one point-after touchdown in his two-year career, being asked deliver a tiny miracle at game's end? Better yet, what are the chances of the starting field-goal kicker getting hurt in the first place?

It happened, though, and when Notre Dame least could afford it. Nobody knew it at the time, but when Hentrich was helped off the field with 2:02 left in the third quarter, the Irish leading, 34-21, Notre Dame's fate was sealed. It would come down to a field goal. It had to, that's the Irish way.

In fact, Holtz predicted just this very type of finish. Earlier in the week, he said he wouldn't be the least surprised if the winner scored 35 points. Holtz even said the game would be decided on the final play.

Truth be known, it should have never come to this. Notre Dame led, 21-0, by the end of the first quarter. It owned a 31-7 lead with 23 seconds left in the first half.

But then Tennessee cornerback Floyd Miley scooped up a blocked field goal and raced 85 yards for a Tennessee touchdown. Instead of going to locker room demoralized, the Volunteers found a glimpse of hope.

Two fumbles and one interception helped account for 21 of Notre Dame's 31 first-half points. Stop the turnovers, said Majors, and you stop the Irish. Or so he suggested.

Actually, the Irish stopped themselves, especially in the crucial fourth quarter. When Notre Dame followers look back at the 1991 season and pinpoint the reasons why they don't have another championship, they can start at 9:03 in the fourth period of yesterday's game.

For reasons unknown, quarterback Rick Mirer was instructed to attempt three consecutive passes. At the time, the Irish were leading by six points and had run around and over the overmatched Volunteers.

But rather than chew up the clock, Notre Dame tried those three passes, all incomplete.

If that was not bad enough, the Irish went to the air again, this time with 5:10 left in the game. Mirer was intercepted by Tennessee safety Dale Carter. About a minute later, the Volunteers scored on a 26-yard screen pass and took a 35-34 lead.

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