After opening the season with back-to-back nail-biting wins against Syracuse and Florida, Tennessee settled into the season with a Week 3 matchup with the Houston Cougars.
Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton was on the Cougars sidelines. A backup quarterback for his dad and head coach Kim Helton. Neither were ready for Tennessee.
“I remember Tee Martin running out for the first series and I looked out there and I was like, ‘oh boy we’re in for a long day here’,” Tyson Helton said.
Helton’s first impression was spot on. Tee Martin had his coming-out party as the junior quarterback threw four touchdowns and 234 yards.
“It feels real good to actually complete some balls and get my feet set and get some good balls off and see what the receivers can do after they catch the ball,” Martin told reporters after the game. “It builds up our confidence as a team and as a whole because the line is now getting paid for what they do. They get some good blocks and protect me and I throw the ball down to the receivers, the receivers cach them and we end up with touchdowns.”
Martin and the Vols ran all over Houston, racking up close to 600 total yards. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s defense made another statement. Even kicker Jeff Hall got his name in the defensive stat book.
“I remember that game because I made a tackle on the kick off and that side of the stadium gave me a standing ovation,” Hall said.
The Cougars managed just 239 yards as Tennessee piled up 3 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. There was no need to tear down the goalposts like the week before against Florida. The Vols won with ease 42-7 to move to 3-0.
But it wasn’t perfect. Tennessee linebacker Al Wilson ended the game with a sling on his right arm.
“I believe the first time I really hurt it was that Houston game in that 98 season,” Wilson said. “I think that was really the first time I really, really hurt it and after that it was downhill pretty much for the rest the season.”
In 11 games, Houston only played in one that had more than 33,000 fans in attendance. Over 106,000 piled into Neyland Stadium to watch the No. 4 Vols take on the Cougars, a game that may have helped Helton return to Tennessee, now wearing orange 20 years later.
“I left that game and I’ve been in Knoxville to Neyland Stadium several times since then but that was my first impression and what an impression it was,” Helton said. “I think it kind of left a mark with me that says. ‘hey, this is one of the special places of college football’. That’s probably the biggest mark it did just saying, ‘man this is as good as college football gets’.