TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tennessee is undefeated, and almost certainly undisputed.
Quarterback Tee Martin and the top-ranked Volunteers claimed one piece of the national championship last night, capping a perfect season with a very imperfect 23-16 victory over No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
It was rusty and rocky, but under the new Bowl Championship Series format, the Volunteers were crowned national champions in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll.
The Associated Press media poll will be released early today, and although third-ranked Ohio State may plead for consideration, the Vols pulled together in the second half and held off the Seminoles.
Their last national championship was in 1951.
Peerless Price led the way with four catches for 199 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown reception with 9: 17 left to open a 20-9 bulge after a scoreless third quarter.
The first quarter was a bundle of bungled trick plays and silly penalties for Florida State, a missed field-goal attempt, a fumble and a couple of bad punts for Tennessee.
For the Seminoles, it included the first of two first-half roughing penalties on free safety Dexter Jackson, a botched lateral pass that resulted in Peter Warrick batting the ball out of bounds for a penalty, and quarterback Marcus Outzen completing one of four passes for minus-8 yards.
For the Volunteers, it included the normally reliable Jeff Hall missing a 33-yard field-goal attempt wide right, marking only the second time the school's all-time leading scorer missed inside 40 yards this season. It also included a fumble by Travis Henry, as well as a 28-yard punt by struggling David Leaverton.
Things finally turned for the Volunteers right before the end of a scoreless first quarter.
With a little over a minute left, Martin found a wide-open Price 10 yards behind the Florida State defense for a 76-yard gain to the Seminoles' 12-yard line. The Volunteers gained only 4 more yards, and Hall made a 26-yard field goal early in the second quarter. But Jackson was called again for roughing, and the Volunteers had a first-and-goal at the 4.
Martin rolled left and hit fullback Shawn Bryson for a touchdown. It took only 25 seconds for the Volunteers to score again. Outzen began the possession by hitting wide receiver Ron Dugans for a 29-yard gain to his team's 49. The sophomore quarterback showed why some suspect his arm strength, throwing a weak sideline pass that was intended for Warrick but was picked off by cornerback Duane Goodrich, who returned the interception 54 yards for a touchdown.
Seemingly on the verge of a blowout, the Volunteers brought the Seminoles back into the game.
On second-and-eight from his team's 24, Martin threw into the middle of Florida State's zone defense. The pass was picked off by rover Derrick Gibson, who returned the interception 43 yards to Florida State 2. Three plays later, reserve tailback William McCray scored in a scrum from the 1-yard line.
The Seminoles continued to shoot themselves in the foot when the snap was botched by holder Clay Ingram and the point-after by Sebastian Janikowski hit the crossbar. Then, after Warrick returned a punt 50 yards to the Tennessee 27 and the Seminoles drove to the 5, two motion penalties and a 2-yard loss brought it back to the 17.
Janikowski took Florida State out of the agony brought on by the 10-play, 10-yard drive by hitting a 34-yard field goal with 1: 17 to play in the first half. It brought the Seminoles back within five, 14-9. The nearly two-hour first half, which saw both teams penalized 14 times for a combined 97 yards, mercifully had come to an end.
If the first half was at least interesting for the ineptitude of the two teams, much of the third quarter was as dull as Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's news conferences. The first two possessions for each team were three downs and out, or as some called them for the Seminoles, three-and-Outzen.
Outzen seemed to be finding some rhythm when he hit Dugans for 32 yards on third-and-seven from his team's 12, the first successful third-down play after seven failed attempts. After an illegal procedure call against the Volunteers, Outzen then scrambled for 8 yards. After getting sacked for a 6-yard loss, Outzen hit Dugans again for a 15-yard gain to the 30.
But the Seminoles started moving backward again, starting when everybody moved except Outzen and center Jarad Moon. On third-and-15, Outzen's 21-yard scramble was called back by a holding penalty. The quarter ended as Martin began to move the Volunteers by hitting Price and Jermaine Copeland for gains of 21 and 8 yards, but Tennessee stalled, too.
Perhaps the biggest play of Tennessee's drive was a 34-yard punt by Leaverton to the Florida State 1. The Seminoles couldn't move, were forced to punt from deep in their end zone, and Eric Parker returned Keith Cottrell's 49-yard punt 17 yards to the Florida State 34-yard line with a little under 14 minutes left.
But Martin threw into double coverage on Tennessee's first play from scrimmage and was intercepted by Jackson in the end zone. Jackson returned to the Florida State 26, giving the Seminoles their best starting field position of the second half. Outzen immediately hit Dugans for a 16-yard gain to start the Seminoles on a drive that reached the Tennessee 27.
Yet again, Florida State went into reverse, as a pair of running plays were stuffed and and Outzen was sacked for a 10-yard loss. The possession was costly for the Seminoles, who saw left tackle Jerry Carmichael and tailback Travis Minor leave the game with injuries.
Pub Date: 1/05/99