57th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1991
#10 Tennessee 23 (Final: 9-2-2, #8)
Virginia 22 (Final: 8-4-0, #23)
How Tennessee and Virginia Met in the 1991 Sugar Bowl
Andy Kelly capped a superb evening with a handoff 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 to which Kelly had directed his team – each one obviously consequential in the thrilling 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 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.
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. If he had been stopped, Tennessee would have been beaten. Amsler gained six yards.
But the difference between Tennessee and Virginia was Kelly, who finished the night with 24 completions in 35 attempts for 273 yards, plus the engineering of three last quarter drives.
Cavalier quarterback Shawn Moore dislocated the thumb on his throwing hand early, but still the Cavs moved almost at will as a new Virginia blocking scheme confused Tennessee. The Cavs held the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first two quarters.
The first-half dominance of the Cavaliers saw them outgain the SEC champions 210 yards to 125, convert on 9-of-11 third downs, and roll 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 third-down passes, two to his receiver-deluxe Herman Moore. 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 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 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. It was the first time in 13 games that Tennessee had failed to score in the opening 30 minutes.
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. The Vols then drove 94 yards – in the process picking up its first third-down conversion of the game – slicing the margin to 16-10, on a seven-yard run by Thompson with 12:51 to go.
Virginia responded with another field goal, but Kelly found Carl Pickens for a 15-yard score with 4:24 remaining to pull within two at 19-17. The injured Moore coolly directed another Cavalier drive that led to a 44-yard field goal with 2:31 on the clock.
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.