Vince Young’s heroics in the 2006 Rose Bowl were the stuff of legend.
Young might have one-upped that legend Sunday, leading an 18-play, 99-yard drive in the final 2:37 to rally the Tennessee Titans past the Arizona Cardinals, 20-17.
Young capped the drive with a 10-yard throw to Kenny Britt on fourth-and-goal as the final horn sounded.
With Matt Leinart filling in for Kurt Warner in Arizona, the situation was similar to how Young’s Texas Longhorns bested Leinart and Southern California in that national championship game. In that game, it was Young running eight yards for the winning TD with 19 seconds left on fourth-and-5.
On Sunday, Young’s miracle-working was even more amazing as it came on the game’s final play, the ball being snapped with six seconds left, and Young scrambling toward the line of scrimmage before letting the pass go with Britt making a leaping catch to give Tennessee its fifth consecutive win after an 0-6 start.
“He reminded me of what we got when we drafted him in the ’06 draft, when he was voted the [Offensive Rookie of the Year], and in ’07 he took us into the playoffs,” owner Bud Adams said. “From this point on, he’s learned everything he needed to learn and he is a tremendous player now. He is just what I thought he’d be when we drafted him.”
The catch also helped Britt, who had seven catches for 128 yards, atone for a costly fumble after a 51-yard reception that killed the previous drive and seemed to doom the Titans’ hopes.
Young was sensational, completing 27 of 43 passes for a career-high 387 yards, collecting 94 of those on the final drive, as he hit on 10 of 16 passes and converted on fourth down three times in the drive. He had a little bit of luck to sustain the march when Bo Scaife caught a tipped ball by Arizona’s Calais Campbell out of the air and gained 19 yards on the play to the Titans’ 36.
Young marched the Titans into position, hitting unlikely targets Lavelle Hawkins and Jared Cook along the way, finally reaching the 9 with Cook’s 17-yard reception with 21 seconds to play. Running back Chris Johnson, amazingly enough, did not have one touch on the final drive.
“We had some faces that you haven’t seen out there making plays. There’s no ‘I’ in our offense right now. It’s about all of us,” Young said.
After two incompletions sandwiched around a sack, the play of reckoning came for Young and the Tennessee offense.
And yes, his Rose Bowl heroics were from nearly four years ago were on more than a few people’s minds.
“All you could think about was the Rose Bowl on that last drive,” Titans nickelback Vincent Fuller said.
Even Leinart, who got the start when Kurt Warner was scratched due to a concussion, had to admit that Young had done it again.
“It was funny, because it was second or third down, down on the goal line and [Steve] Breaston came up to me and he was like, ‘God, this is déjà vu all over again. He did that to Michigan, and he did that to myself in the title game,” said Leinart, who played well in completing 21 of 31 for 220 yards.
But in the end, it was Young, who was celebrating in leading the Titans back to the cusp of playoff contention, now at 5-6 with a date at 11-0 Indianapolis next week.
The Cardinals, who fell to 7-4 and lost for the first time on the road this season, the loss was bitter – even if Leinart knew what it felt like to have Young drive home the final dagger.
“It’s probably as close of a bad feeling as losing the Super Bowl,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “It is as close to that as possible because we knew today that it was going to be difficult against this team. … When you’re that close, when you’re six seconds away from winning it, it makes it even tougher.”
When it was over, Young said perhaps he and his old rival Leinart could have a friendly competition the way former NBA stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird once did.
“It’s not about me and Matt competing. I have a lot of respect for him. We came out the same year,” Young said. “Like I was telling him earlier, we need to start up the Magic and Bird chemistry.”
Young’s play was “magic” on the final drive, and throughout, even overshadowing Johnson, who “chipped in” 154 yards, giving him 1,396 for the year and putting him on pace for 2,031 yards this season.
“He’s shown us a lot in the last five weeks, and I think there’s a lot more coming,” Scaife said.
Young’s play and the Titans’ resurrection as a whole as the team believing that a playoff berth long ago lost in the 0-6 abyss, is suddenly possible again if they continue their current run.
“What makes us a team no one wants to play is that we started off 0-6, and everyone around the league wondered what’s up with the Titans, what’s going on?,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “We win one, we win two, we win three, we win four and now we’ve won five. So you’ve got to pay attention, especially those teams with five losses that are trying to get to the wild-card. Even those teams with four losses, there are five more games left in this season and we want to win the rest of ours.”
The first half was a battle of field goals with Tennessee’s Rob Bironas hitting a pair of kicks and Neil Rackers of Arizona making one.
The Titans then opened the second half scoring when Johnson broke loose for 85 yards and a touchdown, his third run of more than 80 yards this season, tying a mark set by Barry Sanders in 1997.
The Cardinals answered right back with LaRod Stephens-Howling’s 99-yard return of the ensuing kickoff for a score that cut the lead to 13-0.
Arizona then took the lead on Tim Hightower’s 6-yard touchdown run with 12:20 to play.
Taking the ball with 5:58 remaining, the Titans made it to the Arizona 24 on Britt’s 51-yard reception. But when former Tennessee State star Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie knocked the ball loose, and Bryant McFadden recovered it, the Titans looked all but finished.
The situation was made worse when, after Tennessee's defense held, Ben Graham’s punt rolled all the way to the 1 where Stephens-Howling downed it.
But it only set the stage for Young to recreate his Rose Bowl theatrics, with the sequel’s ending even sweeter as far as the Titans are concerned.
“Today was definitely another showing in the maturation process of Vince Young,” Bulluck said.