The Fumble that kept Vols' national title run on track almost never happened
Billy Ratliff, the hero, wasn’t even supposed to be in the game. But there he was, making one of the biggest plays in Vols history. “All of the sudden I looked down and I see the ball on the ground. I promise you that ball seemed like it was there for 5 or 6 seconds.”
The game was essentially over, as were Tennessee’s national championship hopes. Oh well, it was a great run.
The Vols won eight consecutive games to start the 1998 season before they hosted Arkansas. They’d risen to No. 1. A UT win would mean the Vols’ national title hopes would stay alive. An Arkansas loss would end the Vols’ dreams for a title but keep hope alive for the Razorbacks, who were surprisingly also in the national title hunt. That’s where things were headed as Arkansas’ quarterback Clint Stoerner lined up under center on second down with just 1:47 left on the clock. Arkansas needed 12 yards for the first down, but that wasn’t even necessary.
If Arkansas could just run the clock and punt the ball deep, they’d likely upset the top-ranked Vols in Neyland Stadium. As UT’s defense tried to hold on, quarterback Tee Martin and UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe were devising a drive in which they’d have very little time left — if they got the ball back at all. Turns out, that conversation was all for naught thanks to Billy Ratliff.
“I’m going to try jump the snap, get off the ball as quick as possible and I’m going to put my hand straight on his chest and run him through the goalpost,” Ratliff said recently when asked what he remembered about the play that would most define UT’s national championship season. “Sure enough, it happened. I pushed Brandon back. He was on his heels and I was like, ‘I’m not going to stop pushing.'”
Brandon was Brandon Burlsworth, an All-American offensive guard who began his career at Arkansas as a walk-on and was known for his thick, black glasses. Until that point in the game, he had his way with the Vols, including Ratliff.
“He whipped my butt that whole game,” Ratliff said.
Except for one play.
Ratliff’s explosive push into the backfield caused Burlsworth to step on Stoerner’s foot. Stoerner tried to balance himself with right hand. There was only one problem. That hand was holding the football. Stoerner lost his grip as he seemingly laid the ball on the ground.
“All of the sudden I looked down and I see the ball on the ground,” Ratliff said. “I promise you that ball seemed like it was there for 5 or 6 seconds.”
Ratliff pounced on the ball. Suddenly, the Vols had the ball in Arkansas territory with time to mount a more conventional drive. The play was unpredictable, right? Not exactly.
Anyone within earshot of Ratliff just moments before heard him call his shot. UT linebacker Al Wilson witnessed his teammate’s proclamation to Martin on the sideline.
“Billy Ratliff was right next to me,” Wilson said. “Tee came off the field and Billy told him, ‘Hey man, don’t put your helmet away. We’re going to get the ball back.’”
It was the offense’s turn after Ratliff proved prophetic. UT took over at the Hogs’ 43-yard line with just 1:43 left. All Martin had to do was hand the ball off to running back Travis Henry. Cutcliffe called on Henry five consecutive times. The final carry was a 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left and an eventual 28-24 win.
-- Al Wilson on Ratliff's fumble recovery
It was an interesting set of play calls for Cutcliffe, who is widely considered a quarterback and passing game guru. Surely, UT head coach Phillip Fulmer called the shots given his background. Fulmer was a former offensive lineman who loved running the football. One of Fulmer’s favorite phrases was “Pound the Rock,” as in run the football until the other team breaks. Cutcliffe decided to do just that.
“That defined the Tennessee offense that year,” Cutcliffe said. “Phillip was saying ‘We’ve got to throw it. We’ve got to throw it.’ I said ‘No, we’re going to run it every down’ and we ran the football right down their throat.”
Said Fulmer, “Anybody that loves football would love that. You take the ball and drive it and run almost the same play, sometimes right, sometimes left, but basically the same play and run it down their throat and win the game and don’t leave hardly any time on the clock. I love that, whether it’s as (a former) lineman or just a person that likes sports. You like to see those kinds of things happen in sports. It was a legendary drive for sure.
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-- Jeff Coleman
One of the most unusual aspects of the Arkansas fumble is that Ratliff shouldn’t have been in the game at all. Ratliff replaced fellow defensive lineman Jeff Coleman, who was suffering from cramps on the sideline when Ratliffe made history.
“I tell people all the time that if I was still in the game when that happened, we probably would have lost because I just didn’t have it in the tank right then,” Coleman said. “Billy was great. He had fresh legs and blew up the play.”
Ratliff and Coleman were suite mates, so they knew each other well off the field. Coleman had seen the suffering Ratliff had been through. During his UT career, Ratliff suffered a severe neck injury, two torn knee ligaments and serious shin splints. Yet Ratliff kept fighting through his injuries to help his teammates.
“If Billy Ratliff is still out here playing, whatever injury I have, it can’t be that bad,” Coleman said. “He inspires people. He keeps getting knocked down and coming back.”
Considering the medical issues, an NFL career wasn’t likely in the works. Ratliff continued playing football for the love of the game. When relatively healthy, Ratliff showed he had elite talent. Coleman recalled seeing Ratliff, who was over 300 pounds, dunk a basketball with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“He was freak athlete. He definitely was,” Coleman said. “That’s one of those that I would have loved to have seen his career if he had not been injured. He was already something special, but it would have been something else had he not gone through the injuries he did.”
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-- Dwayne Goodrich
The Arkansas win did more than preserve the Vols’ perfect record. It made them believe they could win a title and instilled fear of the possibility of coming up short.
“After the Arkansas game, we knew that was our moment,” former UT cornerback Dwayne Goodrich said.
Said Martin, “It was really good for us as a team to win in the fashion we won. I really felt like that game built character in our team because for the first time, we felt the feeling of defeat and that was a feeling we didn’t want to have anymore.”
That wouldn’t be the case. The Vols finished the regular season by blasting Kentucky 59-21 and Vanderbilt 41-0. There was no overlooking those two foes like the Vols might have done against Arkansas.
“It was one of those games where we always thought we were going to win,” Ratliff said. “We always beat those guys. We had never had a problem with anybody in the SEC but Florida. … They (Arkansas) did a good job of game-planning on us. They were winning the whole game, really. We didn’t really get a chance until the end of the game.”
It’s no surprise that Wilson, who was on the sideline with a torn groin, was leading the charge to get the ball back late in the game.
“I remember Al on the sideline screaming at us and telling us, ‘We can’t lose to Arkansas,’” Ratliff said.
Good fortune was certainly on the Vols’ side against Arkansas. It was odd that Arkansas’ coach Houston Nutt didn’t just run the football instead of calling a bootleg that allowed Ratliff to make his historic play.
“I’m not sure what coach Nutt was thinking about,” Ratliff said.
Some called the Vols lucky after the Arkansas game. After all, UT needed a pass interference penalty to beat Syracuse and were outgained by Florida but still beat the Gators. Now, a careless fumble? Safety Fred White didn’t see it that way.
“He didn’t do it on his own,” White said of Stoerner’s fumble. “He was made to do it. Billy Ratliff hit the lineman and he stepped back on his foot. That was a caused fumble. He didn’t just lay the ball on the ground. You can say that if you weren’t a part of it and you didn’t see what I saw. … Billy Ratliff had every opportunity to give up during that game because that kid was giving him the business, the entire game.”
Ratliff saw both luck and destiny in the play that would make him a Tennessee football folk hero.
“History happened,” he said. “We got the ball back. It was a crazy play. Every national championship team that ever played college football has to have a little luck sometime. That was one of those plays that had to happen. It was meant to be.”
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While Ratliff’s NFL future was never a realistic option because of his myriad injuries, Burlsworth had an incredibly bright future ahead of him. The offensive guard had been named an All-American and a two-time All-SEC First Team player. He was drafted in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft to protect — oddly enough — former Vol quarterback Peyton Manning. Tragically, that never happened. Burlsworth was killed in a car accident less than two weeks after he was drafted.
That has to be the bittersweet part for Ratliff. Among UT fans, his name is synonymous with the Arkansas fumble and what it meant to UT’s 1998 season. However, every time he thinks of the fumble, it’s hard not to think of Burlsworth.
“When I heard Brandon passed away, it hit home,” Ratliff said. “It was a tough situation. Especially knowing the kid was getting ready to go on to the next chapter of his life and getting to the point where he was trying to help his family. It was tough.
“A mother losing a child at that young age, it was tough. I can’t imagine losing a child at that age. I think about it all the time. I have a son right now that just turned 22. He’s in college at Georgia Southern. I think about that all the time.”
Ratliff and Burlsworth will always be linked by the Arkansas fumble. It’s hard not to imagine what might have been had Burlsworth not passed away when he was 22. It’s hard not to imagine what kind of player Ratliff would have been had he not been injured so often. It’s very possible the two would have had many more epic battles in the NFL. Fate intervened.
“You can’t control it,” Ratliff said. “When it’s your time, it’s your time. The Good Lord doesn’t make things happen without a reason. To this day, I still think if he would have fulfilled (his career), we’d be talking All-Pro and Hall of Fame Brandon Burlsworth right now.”
NEXT: David Cutcliffe throws Vols a curveball just before National Championship Game
Cover photo of Clint Stoerner’s fumble courtesy of University of Tennessee Athletics.