No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers at No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Final score: Tennessee wins 35-34
Revenge does not get sweeter than this one. Is there any doubt it would have been at the top of the list? It’s the greatest comeback in UT history and maybe college football history when you consider the magnitude of it, and it was an even better way for Johnny Majors to get revenge on the Irish for Paul Hornung’s theft of the Heisman than what he did in 1979.
The year before, in 1990, Tennessee football lost a 34-29 heartbreak at home to the No. 1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish off a late interception by Andy Kelly. This time, Kelly was a senior. The Vols were 4-2 and ranked No. 13 in the nation.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame, which had a 2-1 series lead over UT thanks to the previous year’s win, was 8-1 and ranked No. 5. A national title was back in play after an early-season loss to the Michigan Wolverines.
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Early on, Notre Dame played like they could win that title on this cold, November day. After being stopped on their first offensive possession, Dale Carter fumbled a punt. The Irish recovered and then looked unstoppable, easily driving for an early TD to go up 7-0. Then Kelly threw a pick-six, and all of a sudden they were up 14-0.
Tennessee football failed to get anything going offensively after that, and despite pinning Notre Dame deep on a punt, they easily drove down the field for another score to go up 21-0. A Corey Fleming touchdown finally got the Vols on the board, but the Irish went up 24-7 off a field goal on the next drive. Then Fleming fumbled, setting up an Irish touchdown to put them up 31-7.
Notre Dame then stopped the Vols on a fourth down and were driving for a score before the half already up huge. That’s when UT finally came to life. With little time left in the half, the Vols blocked a field goal, and Floyd Miley ran it back of a touchdown. All of a sudden, what should have been 34-7 at halftime was 31-14.
At halftime, Majors wrote that the score was Tennessee: 14, Notre Dame: 10, Turnovers: 21. That was the lift the Vols needed to know they could win, and they got back in rhythm the second half. Von Reeves caught a touchdown pass, and an Aaron Hayden touchdown run made it 34-28. Then Carter made up for his fumble by intercepting a pass late.
Phillip Fulmer, then the offensive coordinator, made the call of the century at that point, catching Lou Holtz’s all-out blitz completely off-guard with a quick screen to Hayden, and he took it to the house. UT was down 31-7 and then was up 35-34. A late Irish drive was stalled as time expired by another blocked field goal, and the Vols secured the comeback.
This is one of Tennessee football’s most memorable wins ever and certainly their best win over a religious school. Majors took a shot at Touchdown Jesus the next day on the Johnny Majors show, and numerous jabs were thrown at the Irish always hinting that God is a fan of them. He wasn’t on this day, and the Vols wrecked that team’s season in a legendary comeback.