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Tennessee Football: The illegal play that led to a national title

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The following is a part of the “Celebrate ’98” Series that looks back on the 1998 National Championship team 25 years later. The series is presented by Tennessee Cider Company.

One of the most pivotal plays in college football history should have never happened. The play that led to Tennessee’s national championship in 1998 relied on Billy Ratliffe, well, cheating.

It’s a play that will long live in infamy for the Vols. Trailing 24-22 with 1:47 left in the game, Tennessee looked like they had squandered a chance to win its first national championship in 47 years as Arkansas pounded the Vols and were driving to run out the clock and possibly score, in the final minutes. Then, inexplicably, former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt decided to call a play-action bootleg. The rest is history.

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Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner rolled out only to find an Razorback offensive lineman in his way. That caused Stoerner to stumble, attempt to use the ball as a brace and eventually loose his grip and seemingly set the ball on the ground. The Vols recovered, took over and, via a strong running attack, scored the game-winning touchdown without throwing a pass. The Vols won 28-24 and their national championship hopes were still alive.

What most everyone didn’t know about the play that changed college football history forever was that it was illegal. In fact, the man that made the play, former Tennessee defensive lineman Billy Ratliff admitted to such recently on Off The Hook Sports. Ratliff used the crown of his helmet and buried it into All-American offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth’s chest to push him back. That was not allowed. In a time of desperation, Ratliff didn’t care. He utilized the technique that was taught to him by NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman Reggie White.

Ratliff is quick to admit that Burlsworth and the Arkansas offensive line had been keeping the Vols’ vaunted defensive line in check all day. So Ratliff got desperate.

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“I just remember one technique that Reggie White taught, never told many people about this, but there was a rush that he showed us that is illegal to do and it consists of keeping my head low, like I’m running a 40 yard dash straight up the field and my helmet is going to hit the center of his chest,” Ratliff recalled. “That gives him no way to put his hands on me, to block me and I’ll be the first one to put my hands on his chest.”

“When I get my hands on his chest, all I’m thinking about is pushing him to the goal post and that’s what I did.”

It was a miracle play. The Vols took over after Ratliff forced the fumble and recovered it. Tennessee ran the ball five straight times, scored the winning touchdown, kept their national championship hopes alive and went on to finish the season 13-0 and secure the first BCS national title in college football history.

Arkansas only needed one first down to secure the game by running down the clock before the infamous Ratliff play. Running a play-action, bootleg is still a head scratcher to this day.

“I don’t know what coach was thinking when they did that,” Ratliff said. “But I can’t believe they did that and all I did was just push this man and he was on skates.” 

That allowed the Vols to roll through the remainder of the regular season, win the SEC Championship Game and beat Florida State for the national title in the Fiesta Bowl. None of that would have happened had it not been for that illegal move of desperation that changed college football history.

Read more about this series – Tennessee Football: Championship Bonds Overcome Homelessness

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