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Newz Forum: COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Vols kicker finds redemption, beats hated Gators

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posted on Sep, 19 2004 @ 09:42 AM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Now we know what kickers do while watching their careers melt away.

"For a second, I didn't believe it," said Tennessee's James Wilhoit, who became the latest kicking goat this season to miss an extra point.

Wilhoit's sophomore moment came with 4:17 left Saturday before a Neyland Stadium-record crowd of 109,061. An assumed extra point to tie went sailing wide right and left Florida with a 28-27 lead. The Hindenburg didn't deflate this fast.

"I didn't have time to think," said the sophomore from, well, back from the dead. "After missing an extra point, all my emotion was pretty much shot."

Wilhoit, who had made 47 straight extra points, was about to be the butt of every joke from here to Xavier Betia. Until he got the second chance of all second chances.

No. 11 Florida left just enough time on the clock for the Vols to be led by a freshman quarterback and a redeemed kicker to the promised land.

All Wilhoit needed, it seemed, was a better angle. His 50-yarder with six seconds left gave No. 13 Tennessee (2-0) a 30-28 victory that just might be the best of its series with Florida.

"I was either going to be here talking about missing an extra point," Wilhoit said after the game, "or talking about making a winning 50-yard field goal."

The latter left Neyland stadium in a fit. Wilhoit ran around the field, Jim Valvano-like, looking for someone to hug. Fans and players stared at each other in disbelief. It wasn't just that they beat their hated rivals, they did it after all was lost.


"He won't have any problem getting a date," Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer said of his kicker.

Wilhoit wasn't lonely during those final few minutes. Teammates surrounded him, gave him encouragement even though there was no guarantee the Vols would get the ball back.

They did with 43 seconds left. Quarterback Erik Ainge maneuvered the team into position for Wilhoit at the Florida 33.

"I told him a lot of things," Fulmer said of his kicker with a smirk. "No, I told him after the miss that he was going to win the football game."

The wacky day in the SEC gives us exactly no clue about who is the best in the best conference. Georgia has trouble scoring even with a Heisman-quality quarterback. LSU might have two quarterbacks or it might have none. Auburn had the biggest victory of the day over the LSU but has yet to prove itself championship worthy.

The same can be said of Tennessee, which is more of curiosity than a contender at this point. Fulmer's two-headed "co-starters" Brent Schaeffer and Ainge are going to be great, it seems, but they're not there yet.

Ainge took the biggest step Saturday, guiding the final four drives, two of them scoring drives that produced a touchdown and Wilhoit's field goal.

Our story really begins after Florida's own Matt Leach lined up for a chip-shot 21-yard field goal late in the third quarter that would have pushed the lead to 10. He missed wide right, squandering a drive that had reached Tennessee's 1. Florida left the door open just enough, still leading 21-14.

Florida seemingly locked the thing down when Chris Leak threw 81 yards to Chad Jackson with 7:43 left to break a 21-21 tie. That's not entirely accurate. Jackson was able to run most of those yards after the ball deflected off the arm of a leaping Brandon Johnson, the strong safety.

Ainge, though, was in the process of letting us get a glimpse of his future; guiding the Vols' last four drives and rallying them back. During those drives he helped convert two fourth downs -- one at Tennessee's 30.

"That's the most fun part of football, making plays in the two-minute drill," Ainge said. "I knew we had time to get the ball back. We knew the game wasn't over yet."

Ainge, who threw for 192 yards and three touchdowns in his second career game, was 5-for-8 for 88 yards and a touchdown in the final eight minutes.

Tennessee got a break in field position before its final drive because of a personal foul penalty against Florida's Dallas Baker. After a punt Tennessee started out from its 39 and moved 28 yards in five plays.

"I was on my knees praying," Johnson said. "I said, 'Thank you, God for a second chance.' I wouldn't have been able to live with myself giving up the winning pass to Florida."

Wilhoit's only other kick from beyond 50 yards was in last year's victory in Gainesville. He actually told Fulmer on the final drive that he was good from 57 on in.

"For me there were no excuses," Wilhoit said.

And, thankfully, no reason to hire a body guard when he goes to classes Monday.


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