Vols' Martin gets another chance at NU defense
BY STEVEN M. SIPPLE Lincoln Journal Star
Tee Martin remembers feeling disheartened on the sideline. Yet he was focused once he entered the 1998 Orange Bowl late in the fourth quarter, the outcome decided.
Martin recalls seeing Nebraska first-unit defenders on the field even though the Huskers led Tennessee by 33 points.
"I felt like they were trying to prove a point, so why not prove a point to them?" said Martin, the quarterback who guided the Volunteers' 80-yard touchdown drive that capped the scoring in their 42-17 loss. "We wanted to attack them, and we did. We had to fight back.
"That game really set the stage for the type of attitude we would have going into the spring and the following season."
Nebraska's convincing win against Tennessee earned the Huskers a share of the 1997 national title. The Volunteers, meanwhile, used the loss as the impetus to push them to the national crown last season, with Martin leading the way after two seasons as Peyton Manning's understudy.
"We changed our look and our mentality as an offense. We became more physical. We got stronger and faster," said Martin, now a senior, who will lead sixth-ranked Tennessee into its rematch with No. 3 Nebraska in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
In some ways, with its dismantling of Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, Nebraska helped create the offensive monster it now aims to shut down.
"There were some good lessons learned from (the Orange Bowl)," said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, who was joined by Martin on a teleconference Friday from Knoxville, Tenn. "We weren't as good a physical running team at that particular time, for a number of reasons. We had a great passer in Peyton Manning and a good set of receivers, and we weren't as physical in the offensive line.
"We were able to change gears in 1998 and focus on running the football better, and that helped us."
Tennessee defeated Florida State 23-16 in last season's Fiesta Bowl. This season the Vols earned a return trip to Tempe after leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing (191.3 yards per game) and scoring (31.6). The 9-2 Vols rushed for more than 200 yards in three of their last four games.
Martin, 22-2 as a starter, offers a much different look than Manning did. Martin scrambles and runs QB draw plays and roll-outs. He led the team with nine rushing touchdowns while completing 54.1 percent of his passes for 2,317 yards and 12 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.
The Mobile, Ala. native -- who was heavily recruited by Nebraska -- expects heavy pressure from a Husker defense that ranks fourth nationally. Martin, though, is confident.
"When they bring pressure with the blitz, they'll give us opportunities," he said. "It's going to be their gamble if they want to pressure the quarterback. If they miss one guy, it's going to be a touchdown."
Though Tennessee's national-title hopes vanished with losses to Florida (23-21) and Arkansas (28-24), the Vols are "very excited" about facing the Huskers (11-1), Martin said.
"I think it's two of the best teams in the nation again," he said. "Our focus is really going to be the same as last year, like we are playing for a national championship -- all business."
Tamaurice Nigel Martin may not have made people forget about Manning, but who could? All Manning did was establish SEC career records for total offense, passing yards, completions and lowest percentage of interceptions.
But Tennessee went 13-0 at home during the last two seasons with Martin as the starter, a feat not even Manning could match. Nor does Manning own a national-title ring.
"At the University of Tennessee, the bottom line is win, whether it's Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Heath Shuler, whoever," Martin said. "I understood that coming into last season. No matter how good it looks, at the end of the game we want to have the score in our favor, and that was always my focus."
Martin is reminded again of the 1998 Orange Bowl. Until a couple days before the game, it looked as if Martin would start because Manning was hobbled by a knee injury. Martin prepared with a starter's mentality. When Manning recovered, it took the wind out of Martin.
"It was hard. It hurt," Martin said. "But when I got into the game (in the fourth quarter), I was very focused. I had a good idea what Nebraska was going to do, and we were very successful."
He hopes to duplicate that success from the start on Jan. 2.