There’s a flag on the play

 

By Tom Mattingly

Never was John Majors happier to see a flag dropped. It was Nov. 5, 1988, and the Vols had a one-game winning streak, after a win two weeks earlier at Memphis State.

That doesn’t sound like much, but the Vols had dropped six in a row to start the season, so a one-game win streak was big news. The tally in those six games was 211-102, in favor of the other guys.

Tennessee and Boston College were squaring off in the rain at Neyland Stadium. It rained nearly every home game during the 1988 season, so that was nothing new. It was Homecoming Day.

Preston Warren had a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown, and Chip McCallum added a 43-yard field goal to complete the Vol scoring. Warren’s pick was one of four for the Vols, three by Warren. That was the first time a Vol defender had three picks since Chris White did so in that memorable game against Miami on Jan 1, 1986, in New Orleans.

Tennessee led 10-7 nearing the one-minute mark of the fourth quarter. All appeared well.

BC had the ball, third-and-19 at the 20, 80 yards away from the south end zone, which looked as if it might have been in another county. This year, however, anything was possible.

BC Quarterback Mike Power heaved the pigskin far, far, down the field. Wide receiver Marcus Cherry somehow wrestled the ball away from Vol defenders Warren and Kelly Days and completed an 80-yard scoring play. It was a shocker, to put it mildly.

Neyland Stadium was silent as a tomb. No one counted the number of fans who headed for the exits or those at home who turned off their radios. About that time, however, there was an intervention, perhaps from the heavens.

That came with the realization that there was a yellow flag at the line of scrimmage. The game wasn’t on television, so the word “FLAG” didn’t appear on the television graphics of that day.

The officials, members of a split crew (they don’t have those anymore), conferred and rendered a decision. What happened was a BC tight end was “covered” by the wide receiver on his side. Once he crossed the line of scrimmage, he was an ineligible receiver.

The line judge threw the flag, and a penalty was stepped off. The touchdown was thus disallowed, and there was an enormous sigh of relief from Vol partisans. The official who made the call was not an SEC type, but from the BC side. The Eagles ended up with 17 penalties for 165 yards on the day.

Along with a smallish contingent of folks from up north, Eagles coach Jack Bicknell was not impressed. “I don’t know what the officials saw or didn’t see,” he said. “I just know they’re not very nice people, and I’m sure they would say the same thing about me.”

The Vols escaped the gallows at exactly the right time, in much the same way Ben Matlock always seems to pull a rabbit out of the hat in that show’s next-to-last segment.

Split crews were always an adventure in those bygone days. There had been a similar situation in 1964 when Boston College came to town, when numerous penalties were assessed. The Vols won that day, 16-14. The Eagles also made the Tennessee football history books by being on the other side of John Majors’ first victory at Tennessee, 24-18 in 1977.

The Boston College game was part of a five-game winning streak to end the season, including victories over Mississippi, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Senior Vols, such as All­ American linebacker Keith DeLong, quarterback Jeff Francis, and tight end Nate Middlebrooks guided the comeback of the youthful team.

The finish of the 1988 season was the lead-in to an 11-1 season in 1989 that brought home an SEC title and a 31-27 win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. In 1990, there was another SEC title and a win over Virginia, 23-22, in the Sugar Bowl.

It all happened because two BC receivers lined up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Majors saw it as manna from heaven, perhaps, or maybe a long-overdue break that fell in the Vols’ collective laps.

“But who deserves some good luck more than Tennessee,” said Majors. “We’ve had our share of the other kind.”

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