Tennessee was clinging to a three-point lead over Alabama on Saturday and the crowd was getting restless until Peerless Price returned a kickoff 100 yards and sparked the third-ranked Volunteers to a 35-18 victory.
"We've maybe not always played our very best, but we've played our very hardest in six ballgames in a row," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said after the Vols (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) beat Alabama (4-3, 2-3) for the fourth consecutive year and won their first six games for the first time since 1969.
"Probably the biggest play in the ballgame was Peerless' kickoff return," Fulmer said. "We said all week long we needed a play in the kicking game, and son of a gun if we didn't get a great one."
The Volunteers put together three long scoring drives to go with Price's return and the defense made it stand.
"We had people in position to make plays and just didn't make them," Alabama coach Mike DuBose said. "The things we're doing are good. We just have to execute them better."
Vols quarterback Tee Martin scored twice on short runs to cap drives of 77 and 76 yards as Tennessee churned out 231 yards on the ground. Martin was 10-of-14 for 117 yards.
Reserve tailback Travis Henry had 113 yards on 22 carries and scored twice. He shouldered the load in a decisive 84-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, scoring from the 1, and tacked on a 5-yard TD run with 54 seconds left.
Alabama's Shaun Alexander gained 132 yards on 26 carries, including a 44-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Andrew Zow's 2-point conversion pass to Quincy Jackson cut Tennessee's lead to 14-11 and sent waves of uneasiness through a Neyland Stdium crowd of 107,289.
But Price took the ensuing kickoff, broke through the initial pack, shook off two tacklers and stayed barely inside the right sideline for the Vols' first 100-yard kickoff return since 1990 and just the third in school history.
There was a penalty flag on the play at the Tennessee 20, but it was against Alabama and the touchdown stood.
"After they had jumped on me in the end zone I saw the flag and saw everybody holding their breathe," Price said. "Thank God the flag was on them."
Price's touchdown made it 21-11 with just under five minutes left in the third period.
After Alabama punted, the Vols went 84 yards on 11 straight running plays, plus an Alabama penalty on what would have been a pass.
Henry, who gained 65 of those yards, scored from the 1 to make it 28-11 with under 13 minutes left.
Alabama cut it to 10 points with a 68-yard drive, Zow scoring from the 2 with 6:14 to go. In his third start Zow was 18-of-39 for 177 yards and was intercepted once, on the last play of the game.
But the next time the Crimson Tide got the ball with a realistic chance to make a game of it, the Vols held them to minus-1 yard in four plays and took over on downs.
Alabama used all three of its timeouts to prevent Tennessee from running out the clock, and as a result the Vols drove 53 yards to score with under a minute to play.
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved