TEMPE, Ariz. -- They had won games all year in the fourth quarter, with a lot of heart and more than a little luck. Last night, Tennessee emerged from the ugliness that had become this year's Fiesta Bowl to win the biggest game of all.
The game for all the chips, that's what the top-ranked Volunteers and their fans called the title match, which was sponsored by Tostitos.
With a 79-yard touchdown pass from Tee Martin to Peerless Price, and a subsequent fumble recovery that led to Jeff Hall's field goal, Tennessee beat second-ranked Florida State, 23-16, before a record crowd of 84,470 here at Sun Devil Stadium.
The victory completed a perfectly magical season for the unbeaten Volunteers, who finished with a 13-0 record and the school's first national championship since 1951. The defeat for Florida State (11-2) prevented coach Bobby Bowden from his second national title.
"All year long we've been called a team of destiny and we took heart in that," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. "All year long we found a way to get it done. It wasn't always pretty, but we did the things we needed to do to win."
Said junior quarterback Tee Martin, "We knew we had something to prove. We're the No. 1 team in the country and we showed it tonight."
The obvious became official hours later when the Associated Press announced that the Volunteers had received all 70 first-place votes in its media poll. Ohio State was second.
Martin continued to carve his own legend at Tennessee following in the huge footsteps of Peyton Manning. The junior quarterback overcame two early interceptions to finish 11 of 18 for 278 yards and two touchdowns.
Four of those passes went to Price, whose 79-yard touchdown catch and 199 yards' worth of receptions were both Fiesta Bowl records.
But the play Price talked about was a 76-yard reception at the end of the first quarter that set up Tennessee's first touchdown.
"I couldn't believe he caught me from behind," Price said.
The same couldn't be said for the Seminoles. After Dwayne Goodrich returned an interception of Florida State quarterback Marcus Outzen for a 54-yard touchdown to help Tennessee build a 14-0 lead, the Seminoles were forced to play catch-up the rest of the night.
Goodrich, who helped limit leading Florida State receiver Peter Warrick to one reception before breaking his ankle late in the second quarter, was named the game's defensive MVP.
"They got the ball to their threat, but we didn't get the ball to our threat," Bowden said of Price and Warrick.
Florida State turned Martin's first interception into a 1-yard touchdown by reserve tailback William McCray, and trailed at halftime by five, 14-9, after a 34-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski with 1: 17 left in the first half.
"Some of their success was due to our messing up," said Florida State defensive end Roland Seymour, who watched as Florida State was penalized 12 times for 110 yards for the game. "All year long we've been our own worst enemy, and tonight it showed."
It showed in the scoreless third quarter as well, when Outzen drove his team from the Florida State 9-yard line to the Tennessee 30 before he was sacked and the Seminoles committed three illegal procedure penalties in the course of five plays.
Tennessee finally broke the game open when Martin found Price behind Florida State cornerback Mario Edwards with 9: 17 to go in the game. Then, on Florida State's next play from scrimmage, Outzen was stripped of the ball by defensive end Shaun Ellis.
After Hall's 23-yard field goal increased Tennessee's lead to 23-9, Outzen -- a sophomore making only his third start after injuries to Dan Kendra in the spring and Chris Weinke on Nov. 7 -- appeared to fumble again. But he was ruled down before the fumble, and he continued on a five-play, 49-yard drive.
Outzen's 7-yard run and Janikowski's point-after cut the deficit to 23-16 with 3: 42 to play.
The Seminoles appeared to recover their subsequent onside kick, but the officials ruled that the ball hit Janikowski in the hip on the first bounce before he fell on it.
But on Tennessee's next possession, Travis Henry fumbled on first down at the Florida State 11 with 1: 36 remaining.
Florida State had three timeouts remaining, but Outzen overthrew wide-out Laveranues Coles on first down. The pass was intercepted by cornerback Steve Johnson, who returned it 20 yards to the Florida State 42. After apparently stopping the Volunteers 1 yard short of a first down, the Seminoles were called for a facemask penalty to end any chance of a comeback.
Asked about his decision to go for a long pass on first down, Bowden said, "We thought it would be a pretty good call. We got beat for a touchdown on that play last year by Florida. It didn't work for us."
In the end, it came down to Outzen's inexperience and lack of arm strength, as well as an overall undisciplined performance by the Seminoles. Bowden attributed it in part to his team's six-week layoff since beating Florida on Nov. 21, but the penalties that had been a problem all season caught up with his team last night.
"Our discipline wasn't very good," said Bowden. "And we were a very rusty team. But so were they. It was played like a Pro Bowl."
The victory will certainly help the low-key, low-profile Fulmer emerge from the shadow of Florida's Steve Spurrier as well as his former star Manning, who got credited with much of the program's success during his remarkable career.
And the sloppiness of the game might give those interested in seeing a playoff system instituted more ammunition for their argument. Though Tennessee was awarded the national championship by both national polls, the Volunteers looked a bit stale themselves.
In accepting the trophy last night from the coaches, Fulmer thanked the Fiesta Bowl officials who hosted his team, and his team's raucous fans who turned "Rocky Top" into the game's post-game anthem.
"It's been 47 years since Tennessee has brought home one of these," said Fulmer. "We've got a special place for it."
The Volunteers went home a different team from the one that arrived here last week.
The chip on their collective shoulders was gone because they had won the game for all the chips.
Pub Date: 1/05/99