It was a beautiful day and an excellent way to begin a figurative cross-country drive to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Sophomore Erik Ainge got the start over team captain Rick Clausen, who motioned in signals from the sideline. (Note: Beware of Sideline Captains.) Gerald Riggs seemed to be running well, and the team scored a field goal, forced a fumble, and scored a touchdown in the first three series of the game:
Take a quick look at the first half drive chart before we go any further:
For a bigger version, go to the Animated Drive Chart page.
Ainge was responsible for that first drive, and only a receiver’s dropped pass on third down stalled the drive and forced a field goal attempt. The defense roared out of the gate, forcing a fumble on UAB’s first offensive play, giving the ball back to Ainge on the UAB 33-yard line. A beautiful deep fade to Chris Hannon in the end zone resulted in a score of 10-0 with 9:00 minutes left in the first quarter. The rout was on.
On UT’s next offensive series, the coaches pulled the QB who had just scored 10 points and sent in Rick Clausen. Why? Because that was The Plan. (NOTE: Beware of Rotation Schemes.)
Okay, no problem, because Clausen and that third offensive drive looked pretty good, too. The team moved downfield 50 yards before attempting a field goal, which was . . . missed. Okay. No problem.
The defense was still tearing it up. Jason Allen gave the videotape editors a break and made his own highlight reel on three consecutive plays: tight coverage almost resulting in an interception on first down followed immediately by an excellent shoestring tackle on an escaping tailback on second down followed immediately by a first-down-denying tackle of a hard-to-bring-down scrambling quarterback.
Apparently, the botched field goal was Clausen’s fault because Ainge returned on the next series after the team was backed up on its own nine-yard line by a good UAB punt. A handful of plays later, Ainge rolled out and really overthrew a wide open receiver for an interception. UAB capitalized with a field goal.
Ainge re-took the field but was now really out of sync. He would admit after the game that he was pressing, trying to make bigger plays so that he could stay in the game. But when he was not overthrowing receivers, the receivers were dropping catchable passes. The entire offense now looked sluggish.
With clock winding down before the half, Clausen came back in to run the two-minute offense. The receivers continued to drop balls, but Clausen drove the team 80 yards for a TD, and the embers of a QB controversy that had been smoking and glowing for nine months caught flame.
Clausen started the second half and led the team down the field only to give the ball over on downs at the 31. UAB then drove down to UT’s three yard line and would have scored if it weren’t for an interception by Justin Harrell.
On the next offensive series, Clausen again led the team down the field. The Sideline Captain exhibited some serious spunk in the process, mixing it up with the UAB defender who dared tackle him as he scrambled for a first down and later getting tangled up underneath the UAB bench after getting pushed out of bounds by an aggressive defender. The impressive drive continued to the nine yard line until Clausen threw a catchable pass to Cory Anderson, who batted it once, batted it twice, and successfully kept it in the air until a defender could get there and pick it off.
UAB summarily drove 86 yards for a touchdown, bringing the 24-point underdogs to within seven points of a tie.
Well, Anderson’s juggling act must have somehow been Clausen’s fault because Ainge got the next series. He promptly responded by barely throwing the ball away while in the hands of a defender on the first play, throwing the ball so high over a receiver’s head that the receiver didn’t even attempt to catch it on the second play, and telegraphing a deep pass on the third play, allowing the safety to intercept the ball.
Score 17-10, with the Blazers driving in Tennessee territory. Despite Jessee Mahelona beginning the drive by sacking the QB, UAB drove down to the 11 yard line. Down by seven, with 3:41 to go, UAB elected to go for it on fourth down, and a pass to receiver in the end zone almost hit its mark. It was unclear whether the pass was incomplete because the receiver simply couldn’t handle the velocity of the pass or because UT safety Demetrice Morley defelcted it. Either way, the defense again came through in the clutch.
Insert Clausen with the team at its own 11 yard line. Clausen’s drive, which included a 53-yard pass to C.J. Fayton on third down and six, delivered the team to the 22 yard line before time expired.
The Vols escaped with a 17-10 victory thanks to Rick Clausen and two key defensive stops.
Looking back at the UAB game
It wasn’t exactly the start Volunteer fans were expecting. GoVolsXtra’s John Adams observed after the game that in three short hours, the Vols went from trying to be best-in-the-nation to trying to beat the third best in Conference USA. Mike Griffith gave the entire team a grade of C- and noted that the running game, which coach Fulmer said “looked like a bunch of mush at times,” did not live up to expectations.
Still, no one was panicking. Blogger Haiku of the Id chalked the mediocre performance up to typical first-game-of-the-season goofs, and John Pennington ripped the team but concluded that Vol fans shouldn’t make too much of the game because in college football, one week often doesn’t have much to do with the next. I said that the “ugly win [was] the best medicine for an over-confident team heading into hostile territory.”
Impact on Polls
The game had only a minimal impact on the expectations for the Vols nationally. College Football News dropped them to No. 5, and they fell to No. 4 in the Coaches’ poll. More disconcerting was the fact that future opponents Florida and Georgia had both answered their Big Questions – Will new head coach Urban Meyer’s spread option offense work at Florida? Is new starting QB D.J. Shockley up to the task of replacing David Greene? – with a resounding “yes!” The Gators and Bulldogs crept into the top 10 at Nos. 10 and 9 respectively. And Notre Dame, under new head coach Charlie Weis, had clobbered Pittsburgh 42-21.
The Vols would find out soon enough if the UAB game was a fluke. The Gators were up next.
Read Part 3 of the series: Re-living the Tennessee Volunteers 2005 football season: Part 3, Florida Gators.