In a season of comebacks that were near-misses, Tennessee saved the best for last.
"I think this is the most fun we've had all year coming from behind," wide receiver Carl Pickens said after Tennessee scored with 31 seconds left to edge Virginia 23-22 in the Sugar Bowl Tuesday night.Andy Kelly drove the Vols 79 yards in less than two minutes to pull out the victory, giving the Southeastern Conference champions their fifth straight bowl game win.
"As an offense we're confident," said Kelly, who completed 24 of 35 passes for 273 yards to win the MVP award. "We've been in these type situations before and knew we could do it. It wasn't like a giant surprise we moved the ball down the field. It was just a matter of us doing what we're coached to do."
The two biggest late rallies the Vols had staged this season both fell a little short, in a 31-31 tie with Colorado and a 34-29 loss to Notre Dame.
But Tony Thompson, who completed his remarkable season with 25 carries for 151 yards, dove over from the 1-yard line to finish the Sugar Bowl comeback the way the Vols meant for it to end.
"We felt we were going to win," Thompson said. "It's always nice to go out with a win."
Tennessee coach Johnny Majors called it "an amazing football game, just amazing."
"I don't think I've had a better one in the 23 years I've coached," Majors said. "The last drive was outstanding execution. We showed poise, confidence, ability. Every tick of the clock counted, and Kelly did a masterful job."
Kelly completed 7 of 10 passes for 64 yards on the winning drive.
"It wasn't anything new to us," Pickens said. "We had to pass the ball to come back, that's what we like. I don't know why it's so hard for them to realize that when the game's close like that they have to come to the money men, and that's our receivers."
Offensive tackle Antone Davis said the final drive "brought flashbacks of Notre Dame" when an interception at the goal line thwarted Tennessee's last chance.
"It was the end, we're throwing the ball, I'm just hoping we didn't do anything wrong," Davis said. "I kept telling the guys in the huddle `no silly penalties.' I think our guys acted very mature. Nobody was overexcited."
Davis' running mate at tackle, Charles McRae, said the Vols "had a big feeling that we can't be stopped, we wouldn't be stopped and we weren't stopped. It was a lot of confidence and determination."
Virginia led the game 16-0 at the half and controlled the ball nearly 22 minutes.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell said he was relieved the Cavaliers weren't further ahead after such a dominant first-half performance.
"We could have let them score and gotten the ball back quick," he said. "I think it's pretty remarkable they only had 16 points. I thought we got our act together in the second half, and they finally messed up a little bit."