37th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1971
#4 Tennessee 34 (Final: 11-1-0, #4)
#11 Air Force 13 (Final: 9-3-0, #16)
How Tennessee and Air Force Met in the 1971 Sugar Bowl
It was over quickly, if not painlessly. Making the shortest work of any Sugar Bowl foe, Tennessee virtually put an end to Air Force’s hopes nine minutes after kickoff.
The Falcons threw up an eight-man line, in an attempt to slow down the Vols’ potent running game. Quarterback Bobby Scott neutralized that strategy and outguessed the blitz threat as the Vols steamed 59 yards on Tennessee’s first possession for a touchdown. Two minutes and 45 seconds were gone in the first period when Don McLeary took a pitchout cut behind a block by Curt Watson, and scored from the 5.
“We had the momentum going,” said Scott.
They sure did.
After recovering an Air Force fumble, George Hunt kicked a 30-yard field goal for Tennessee.
Then the Vols applied the coup de grace to the flyboys. After Air Force punted to the Tennessee 42, Scott, rolling right, zipped a pass to Lester McLain at the 20. McLeary took a handoff, found a hole on the left side, broke a tackle and cut to his left. Another defender slipped off, and McLeary scored his second TD of the afternoon.
Yet another Air Force fumble gave the Vols possession at the Falcon 24. Four plays later, Scott passed to Gary Theiler at the 5 and he stepped the rest of the way into the end zone.
In four possessions, Tennessee scored four times and led 24-0 with 3:12 to go in the first quarter.
This one was all over but the weeping for the Falcons.
Air Force finally saw the other side of the 50 in the period’s waning moments with a pass interference call at the Vols’ 45. That was followed by the day’s most exciting moment, though it had nothing to do with football. A dog raced on the field and held up the game for more than ten minutes. “I tried to chase him off,” said Tennessee split end Joe Thompson, “and he almost bit me.”
So much for exciting moments – the time the dog spent running around the field represented the longest first-half span that Tennessee did not score.
Scott Hamm punted out on the Tennessee 8, which turned out to be one of Air Force’s most effective plays. Scott fumbled the next snap, and ran back to pick up the ball at the 1. There he was knocked into the end zone and fumbled again. Darryl Hass fell on the ball to slice the margin to 24-7.
“I tried to pick it up,” Scott said, “and knock it out of the end zone. But a Falcon grabbed my arm and Air Force fell on it for a touchdown.”
A 57-yard punt return by Bobby Majors the first time Tennessee touched the ball in the third quarter added to the Vols’ total. Majors fielded the ball, stepped to his left, picked up a convoy and headed for the faraway goal line. Hamm, the kicker, had the last chance at stopping Majors at the 30, but the runner whizzed past. “After I caught the punt,” Majors said, “I looked downfield and right away (Jackie) Walker got the first man and I saw a lane there. The punter had a shot, but I sidestepped him and turned it on.”
Each team scored again, but the final score, convincing as it was, didn’t reflect the Vols’ mistakes. Tennessee, which cut down the Air Force rushing game to minus 12 yards, came up empty on six other legitimate scoring opportunities; (1) a lost fumble on the Falcons 17; (2) a missed 32-yard field goal; (3) a missed 30-yard field goal; (4) a lost fumble on the Air Force 14; (5) a missed 42-yard field goal; and (6) an interception in the end zone from the Falcons’ 21.
The Vols defense, though, was more than impressive in the mismatch. Linebacker Jamie Rotella had eight solo tackles and an assist, recovered two fumbles and broke up a pass. Fellow linebacker Ray Nettles had nine tackles, three assists and one sack.
Nettles said, “I didn’t like them (Air Force). They said things on the sidelines and seemed awful cocky.”
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.