|57th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1991
Andy Kelly handed off to Tony Thomson, who banged into the end zone.
There were 31 seconds left in the Sugar Bowl and this was the last of 20 fourth-quarter points. Kelly staked his team to - everyone obviously consequential in what turned out to be a one-point victory.
"He was masterful," Tennessee coach Johnny Majors said, wiping sweat from his forehead after Kelly had moved his team 79 yards in the game's last 2:31 to stake the Vols to a 23-22 victory.
On that drive, Kelly accounted for 64 yards of the total by himself, connecting on 7-of-9 passes before Thompson, who gained 151 yards on the night, crashed in from the 1.
"A great feeling swept over my body when I saw Tony going in for the winning touchdown," a relieved Kelly exalted.
This is how close the difference between victory or defeat was: Perhaps the game's most important play came seconds earlier, on fourth-and-one at the Virginia 23, with 50 seconds to play, Kelly sent Greg Amsler into the line. Amsler gained six yards. If he had been stopped, Tennessee would have been beaten.
And the difference between Tennessee and Virginia, a team bent on redeeming itself, was Kelly, who finished the night with 24 completions in 35 attempts for 273 yards, plus the engineering of three last quarter drives.
The halves of the Sugar Bowl were complete contrasts.
Tennessee was its own worst enemy early. The Vols had to overcome three first-half turnovers, including two critical Kelly interceptions near the Cavs' goal line, for the victory. The first half also marked the first time in 13 games that Tennessee had failed to score in the opening 30 minutes.
Tennessee had been surprised by a new Virginia blocking scheme, and to which the Vols did not adjust until the second half. Quarterback Shawn Moore dislocated the thumb on his throwing hand early, but still the Cavs moved almost at will, holding the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first two quarters.
So dominant were the Cavaliers in the first half that they outgained the SEC champions 210-125, converted on 9-of-11 third downs, and rolled to a 16-0 lead that could have been bigger had the lingering effects of Moore's injury not been so evident, with his passes fluttering. On the game's first series, the Cavs' quarterback completed three short passes, two to his receiver-deluxe Herman Moore. All were third-down conversions to keep the drive going.
But for the most part, the Cavs relied on the running of Terry Kirby and Gary Steele. It was Steele who scored from 10 yards out 5:41 into the game. Tennessee linebacker Darryl Hardy blocked Jake McInerney's PAT (only his second miss of the season) to keep the score at 6-0.
Considering what happened later, Hardy may have saved the Sugar for the Vols.
The next time Virginia got the ball, it took a 9-0 lead on McInerney's 22-yard field goal with 35 seconds left in the opening period. A tipped-pass interception in the end zone, gathered in by Tyrone Lewis, started the Cavaliers on a grueling 80-yard push that took 6:59 off the clock and gave them a 16-0 lead. The touchdown came on Terry Kirby's one-yard run out of the wishbone.
While Virginia's best defense in the first half was its offense, the defensive unit was very opportunistic. The Cavaliers forced three turnovers on the Volunteers' first five possessions, a fumble at the Virginia 36, an interception at the Virginia 1, and another at the Virginia 19.
The Cavs built their imposing halftime lead, sending many of the Tennessee (un)faithful to the French Quarter.
Though Tennessee was able to pick up only three points during the third quarter - Greg Burke toed a 27-yard field goal at the end of the Vols' first possession - a change in the game's tenor began to show. Tennessee had the ball for 8:07 of the period, compared to 8:06 of the entire first half.
A Cavalier drive deep into Tennessee territory was cut short when an under-thrown pass by Moore was picked off by Floyd Miley. Tennessee then drove 94 yards - in the process picking up its first third-down conversion of the game - to slice the margin to 16-10.
The foes traded shots - but field goals for Virginia, touchdowns for Tennessee - until quarterback Moore ignited a drive that led to a 44-yard McInerney kick that made the score 22-17 with 2:31 left to play.
From then on it was Kelly against the clock.
Amsler said accurately, "He was a cool customer in the fourth quarter."
Recap excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.