In this post, I set up the game between the 10th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers and the 4th-ranked LSU Tigers by saying that “the sputtering Tennessee Volunteers attempt to kick a man while he’s down in full view of his rabid fans and a sympathetic nation.”
The game turned out to be an instant classic, as the underdog Vols, led by an underdog quarterback, followed up one of the worst halves in the history of college football with one of the best comebacks in the Vols’ storied history. The day after the big win, several Knoxville talk radio hosts canonized the previous night’s win, suggesting it was one of Tennessee’s five best games. Ever. Too bad what sounded like half of the Vol fans went to bed after the first half.
What follows is my almost-live blogging of the game, with a little bit of drama added just for fun:
ESPN opens the game with a “coming home” theme, showing images of Louisiana natives returning to hurricane-ravaged Baton Rouge. “It’s like going to Grandma’s house,” one said. “You just know everything’s gonna be alright.”
As anticipated, Tiger Stadium was raucous when the teams took the field. The Vols had their work cut out for them.
LSU kicks off first. Despite our grandest hopes at seeing any improvement in the kick return game, UT begins the game by having a kick return man run to the 20 yard line and crumple into a pile.
But Vol fans everywhere are optimistic that the new we’re-sticking-with-Erik-Ainge-at-quarterback-come-hell-or-high-water tactic will translate into rhythm, rhythm into points, and points into a win.
On the first play, LSU gives UT five yards by jumping off sides. Gerald Riggs then runs to the left — a sight for sore eyes — for a few before LSU gives the Vols a first down by again jumping off sides. Not a bad start, but more of a gift than a wage.
Two plays later, Ainge is under pressure, and despite the mantra of the week that Ainge would not have to worry about “looking over his shoulder,” I’m thinking that this might be a good time to do just that because an LSU defender is bearing down on him from his blind side. Ainge scampers to the left, looking down field, but he’s hit from behind, and he loses the football to LSU deep in UT territory.
On LSU’s first play, running back Joseph Addai runs into the pile in the middle, bounces it back out, and runs around the corner for a touchdown.
After less than three minutes to play, the score is LSU 7, UT 0. This could get ugly.
Okay, guys, let’s take it from the top and try once again to establish that elusive rhythm.
When LSU kicks off, UT’s return man again runs to the 20 and crumples into a pile.
As promised, Ainge takes the field despite the early mistake. Good. Ainge delivers a quick pass to Meachem on the left side. Meachem . . . drops the ball. Hmmm, thought the receivers got that out of their system in the UAB game. ESPN announcer Bob Davie refers to the UT wide receiver corps as “the most talented in the country.” Hmmm, again. On paper, maybe, but the games aren’t played on paper.
Still trying to find the first beat of a rhythm, UT runs Riggs to the left on 2nd down for a couple. The next play, Ainge tries to audible in the deafening cacophony only to get penalized for delay of game. So it’s 3rd down, and Ainge finds Bret Smith open down the right sideline. Smith . . . drops the ball. In response to the play, Bob Davie says Bret Smith “can be a great one.” Okay, but then why is Britton Colquitt punting? To make matters worse, the LSU return man actually makes a couple cover men miss and gets a few yards before getting tackled. A novel idea.
On LSU’s next possession, an LSU receiver actually catches the ball. Another novel idea. After Addai is stopped by stud Jesse Mahelona and Parys Haralson for a loss, the LSU punter pins UT inside their own five.
Not the best place to find your rhythm, but once again, LSU helps out by giving UT 15 for a personal foul. But the first down for the Vols is followed by a false start by a new o-line starter. Nice. Ainge then overthrows a receiver. Hmm, for the third time. Thought he got that out of his system the first two games.
Riggs for nothing up the middle. Ainge overthrows Meachem on a slant. Do we have a rhythm yet? Colquitt punts and LSU gets about 40 yards on the return before Colquitt leg whips him to the ground. Luckily, it’s called back for a block in the back.
LSU passes for a first down. Fellows misses a tackle. Thought they got that out of their . . . nevermind. One bright spot, Kevin Simon absolutely levels an LSU receiver trying to catch a pass across the middle. The guy goes from verticle to horizontal in the blink of an eye. Then, the LSU quarterback fumbles the snap, and UT recovers.
Ainge drops back and completes a pass across the middle to Hannon. It’s the Vols first first down not given to them by LSU penalties. Clausen stands on the sideline, baseball cap on backwards. He’s been on the sidelines in Death Valley before, as an LSU backup. They told him he wasn’t good enough to play in the SEC, and they let him go. It would have been sweet redemption for him to come into Tiger Stadium and get a win against the team that dissed him, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards tonight. UT’s going with Ainge, come hell or high water. It’s the rhythm thing. Unfortunately, the only rhythm UT has going for it right now is the sound of Colquitt’s foot hitting the pigskin. Thud. Thud. Thud. And thud again.
LSU’s next possession sputters, and they have to punt. UT should have decent field position for the first time in the game. Ainge completes a mid-length pass across the middle to Fayton. A tentative first beat — Boom. Maybe he’s finally hitting his stride, not worried about having to come out.
But Ainge follows it up with an ill-advised shovel pass under pressure. It’s incomplete, so there’s no real consequence, but the sound of the boom fades away. On the next play, LSU sniffs out a screen play early and tackles the receiver as soon as he catches the ball for a loss. Ainge then overthrows another receiver, so in comes Colquitt. Thud! He pins LSU back inside their own 15.
LSU sputters and punts.
Ainge sputters, overthrowing Jason Swain on first down, completing a pass to an out-of-bounds Swain on second down, and completing a too-short middle screen, and in comes Colquitt. Thud!
LSU finds its rhythm first. Addai runs for 20-some yards. Fortunately, he’s tackled by his own man before he can get to the end zone. Unfortunately, LSU runs a flea flicker on the next play for another 40-something gain. Soon thereafter, they run it in for a TD.
LSU 14, UT 0.
LSU kicks off to the UT kick return guy, who, instead of running to the 20 and crumpling into a pile, runs to the 25 and fumbles it back to the 20. Failure with a twist. At least, one of the UT players accidentally falls on it.
Another good first beat for UT follows. Riggs runs to the left for 9 yards, dragging three tacklers with him before coming down. The second beat fails when the same play is run again for another 15 yards or so, but is called back due to a holding penalty against wide receiver Chris Hannon. Riggs is then tackled for no gain. On the next play, Riggs catches a dump-off and stretches for a first down. Then another holding penalty. And another incomplete pass to a down-field receiver due to poor timing. Pass to Fayton gets them back to the line of scrimmage. Incomplete pass across the middle, and in comes Colquitt. A bunch of noise, but no rhythm.
ESPN then decides to rub some salt in the wound by choosing this time to remind the country that 13 UT players were arrested or cited since February, 2005. Old news. Looks like bad timing is contagious.
Anyway, LSU punts, pinning UT inside the 1-yard line and putting a rhythm-less team in a precarious situation.
And that’s when the wheels come off: Ainge under center. The center snaps the ball, and Ainge runs backwards and pivots to look for receivers, but instead finds a blitzing LSU linebacker bearing down on him in the end zone threatening a two-point safety. Ainge spins and inexplicably, incomprehensably, inconceivably, unfathomably tosses the ball underhand toward the crowd of players who are standing around at the line of scrimmage. The ball sails just over the heads of the UT offensive linemen and into the arms of an LSU defender, who catches it and sprints three yards into the end zone for a six point TD. Ainge is slammed into the ground and hits the goal post head first in the process.
LSU 21, UT 0.
Uh, Coach? Are we sticking with Ainge? What’s worse than hell or high water?
Rick Clausen removes his baseball cap, puts on his helmet, and leads the team onto the field. The LSU crowd boos him, but he completes a pass to to Fayton for a handful of yards. Boom. Bob Davie comments that Clausen doesn’t have the “wow” factor that Ainge does. Uh, is that a good “wow” or a bad “wow?” Riggs runs for a first down to the middle-right. Boom. Hey, that’s two beats in a row. Clausen throws complete to Smith to the left for about 5. Boom. Riggs runs for another first down straight up the middle. Boom. Don’t look now, but the Vols are moving the ball!
And then Riggs fumbles the ball and LSU recovers. Simon gets a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the next play.
The good news? We get to hear from Urban Meyer during halftime! I feel better now.
The brief UT cadence is short-lived, but at least LSU squanders a sure field goal by letting the clock run out.
No more. No more talk of UT’s talent. Being 6-4, weighing 230, and running a fast 40-yard dash doesn’t make you a talented receiver. Having a strong arm doesn’t make you a talented quarterback. Dropping balls and getting penalties that negate positive plays sure don’t make you talented.
Making plays makes you talented.
No more talk of “talent” or “potential.” Make some plays, and then we can talk.
Not only have the wheels fallen off the wagon, the wagon has slammed to the concrete and splintered into craggy shards, and the pieces have been ground to dust and scattered to the four winds.
The offense is simply gone. Vanished. A wisp, a vapor.
Beginning of 2nd Half.
Going back to the Florida game, the Vols have had 17 straight posessions with no points. Zero. And they have to kick off to LSU.
Good defensive stand on LSU’s first possession. Kevin Simon saves a first down by knocking the ball loose.
Riggs to the left for a handful. Boom. Throw to Hannon to the left for a similar amount. Boom. Hannon to the left. Boom. Swain to the right. Boom. 6-8 yards each time. First down. First down. First down.
Pound the drum. Keep the rhythm.
With UT closing in on the end zone, the LSU student section goes into an all-out frenzy, trying to keep Clausen out of the end zone by making him bleed from the ears.
Clausen drops back. Nobody open. He looks a bit longer. Nobody open! He runs. 8 yards. Boom. The LSU fans roar. Riggs runs up the middle on the next play. Boom.
First and goal at the 4. Riggs heads to the left, but — NOT AGAIN! — fumbles. He falls on it, though, and UT retains possession. The Vols have missed a beat, but will it matter?
Second and goal. Clausen drops back and throws a touchdown to Smith. LSU 21, UT 7.
A little bit of rhythm. The wind gathers sawdust from the ends of the earth and blows it back into piles.
Can the defense tighten the screws? Again, the LSU returner gets past the first wave of UT kick-off coverers. Returner gets knocked out for a second, though, so that’s something.
LSU, 3rd and 1. UT knocks them backwards and forces a punt, which is short.
UT, 1st and 10 deep in their own territory. Clausen checks off. Too much noise, and Clausen throws deep, but the receiver isn’t there. 2nd and 1o. False start. 2d and 15. UT calls timeout. The crowd is getting lathered. The next play, Clausen goes over the middle to Fayton, and Fayton tips the ball three times before getting hit and letting the ball hit the ground. 3rd and 16. Does the beat go on, or does it fade?
Perhaps the play of the game, UT calls a fake screen. The LSU defenders sneak up like they did before, but Bret Smith sneaks past them into the open field. Clausen, under immense pressure, heaves it to Smith for a 25-yard pass play. Boom!
1st and 10 for UT. Fayton to the right for a handful. Fayton to the right for another handful. 3rd and 2. Clausen tries to throw, but an LSU defender skies, forcing Clausen to wait, and Clausen is then sacked by another defender. In comes Colquitt.
LSU takes over, and Addai runs up the middle for a first down. And again, Addai up the middle for a first down. Addai again, but this time he’s stopped after 4 yards. Addai again, this time to the left, but Mahelona, from the ground, tackles him with one hand around the ankle. Then it’s UT’s turn to sniff out the screen and LSU is forced to settle for an ugly field goal. Fine stand by the Vol defense.
But the UT offense is running out of time, and the rhythm is in jeopardy.
As the 4th quarter starts, Clausen looks for Meachem down the right sideline, but Meachem gets beat by his cover man. On 3rd and 7, Clausen throws to Chris Brown over the middle. It’s incomplete, but a penalty gives UT a first down.
Clausen to Hannon to the right for 6. Clausen to Fayton over the middle, but the cover man makes a good play to knock the ball down. On 3rd and 4, an LSU defender jumps offsides, and casually walks back to his own side, almost, but not quite, getting back before the ball is snapped. Free play. Clausen misses Briscoe down the left sideline for what would have been a sure touchdown.
But at least it’s first down. Riggs up the middle for one or two, but there’s a flag. Offsides, so UT takes five. Clausen over the middle. Poor pass misses Fayton. Next play, Clausen sacked. 3rd and 9. Fayton gets a first down over the middle. Excellent pass and excellent protection.
Pass to Corey Anderson to the left for a handful. Excellent pass to Meachem to the left, who gets a few yards after the catch with a juke or two.
UT at the 10. First and goal. Tough part of the field. Clausen finds Meachem, who catches the ball at the 1.
What will UT do? Riggs over the top? Riggs to the left, like everyone was screaming for last week? Nope, it’s Hardesty in, and he tries both, over the top to the left, and he’s stopped. They try again, with Riggs this time. Good choice, but Riggs is stopped short. Barely.
Huge play coming up. It’s 4th down, and LSU leads 24-7 with about 10:00 minutes left to play. UT calls time out to talk things over, and then comes to the line and sneaks it in behind the o-line. Touchdown, you’re-not-good-enough-to-play-in-Death-Valley, underdog quarterback Rick Clausen.
LSU 24, UT 14. 9:35 left. The dust re-forms into barely discernible planks of wood.
But can UT stop the LSU return man, who’s threatened to take it to the house every time he’s touched it tonight? Wilhoit kicks it deep into the end zone. Good play.
UT needs a good defensive stand here. On first down, LSU passes for a few. On 2nd and 7, Addai runs into the arms of Justin Harrell, who, with Mahelona beat three blockers to stop the play for no gain.
On 3rd down, the LSU quarterback drops back to pass, and throws it into the secondary. OSKIE! Jonathon Heffney intercepts the ball and sprints toward the end zone. A defender dives at his feet, and Heffney does a mid-air sumersault to the three yard line. The rhythm is constant, steady, pulsating. UT is clicking on all cylinders.
UT, first and goal on the three. Riggs takes it to the one, and on the next play runs in untouched, behind big fullback Anderson, for a touchdown.
LSU 24, UT 21. 7:35 remaining. The wooden planks assemble themselves, and the wheels are re-attached to the wagon. UT is rolling!
Wilhoit kicks deep into the end zone. Again, good play.
Does the UT defense have another stand in them? On LSU’s first play, Addai is stopped for a loss by Harrell, and Mahelona finishes him off. 2nd down, and LSU quarterback Russell, under pressure, throws for what looks like it could be a first down. But it’s trapped instead. No catch.
3rd and 11. Big play to keep the Mo. False start, so make it 3rd and 16. Should be able to keep this less than a first down. The defense flushes Russell from the pocket, and because nobody is open, he runs, but he’s short of a first down. LSU punts.
Please, no muff. Finally, a UT kick returner has a decent return, but there was a block in the back. Still, a positive sign for the return game. Lucas Taylor is UT’s return man, okay? Oh, and by the way, Rick Clausen is the quarterback. Agreed?
1st and ten at the 45. LSU calls time out. UT’s behind by a field goal with five minutes and change left in the game. Clausen calls the play at the line of scrimmage, and when the ball is snapped, Riggs explodes up the middle for 22 yards.
On the next play, Anderson is WIDE open for a touchdown. He . . . drops the ball.
Okay, still got Mo.
Mo? . . . Mo?
Nice pass to Hannon, gain of 14. 3rd down and short. Riggs for a first down up the middle. Under four minutes to go. LSU on their heels and UT in their re-furbished wagon thunders rhythmically down the road.
UT first and ten. Nice pass to Meachem, who sheds a tackler and runs for a another first down.
UT first and ten at the 17. The LSU defense is taking a pounding, and they’re visibly exhausted. Clausen drops back . . . Meachem open in the end zone . . . over-thrown.
2nd and ten. Clausen . . .under pressure . . . Hannon open in the end zone . . . over-thrown.
3rd and ten. Screen to Swain. Short of the first down.
Decision time. UT sends its field goal unit onto the field, and James Wilhoit ties the game.
LSU 24, UT 24. 2:02 left to play.
Wilhoit kicks into the back of the end zone again. The LSU kicker is warming up and hoping the offense gets him into field goal range. LSU runs up the middle twice then throws an incomplete pass, stopping the clock at 32 seconds. They choose to punt and play for overtime.
And — OH MY WORD — UT’s true freshman return man bobbles the punt . . . but retains possession. Clausen then throws a deep interception, giving LSU another chance, but on their first play, Haralson gets a big sack. LSU’s Hail Mary pass into the end zone is intercepted by UT’s Demetrice Morely.
UT wins the toss and elects to defend first.
Addai runs up the middle for a first down on the first play, half of it running backwards. A run to the right goes for one or two yards. With Mahelona executing a ten-yard running dive for Russell’s ankles while being held the whole time, Russell throws incomplete to a screen man on the other side of the field. On 3rd and 10, Russell throws incomplete into the end zone.
LSU runs its field goal unit into position. The snap is good. The hold is good. The kick is . . . wide left, but hooking, hooking . . . just inside the right upright. It’s good.
LSU 27, UT 24.
Clausen and the Vols take the field. Clausen dumps the ball off to Riggs on the right side, who stiff arms one defender, bounces off another, and gets a first down.
Clausen in the shotgun . . . draw play to Riggs to the left for another 6 yards.
2nd and 3. Clausen under center, hands off to Riggs, who barrels straight ahead for a first down before four Tigers wrap him up and take him down.
First and goal for UT. Clausen under center. Riggs up the middle, pushing, pushing, stopped one foot from the goal line.
Second and goal. Wouldn’t it be sweet if Clausen scored the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak? They try it, but Clausen’s stood up, and he gets nowhere.
Okay, so not that sweet. Let’s give it back to Riggs, shall we?
3rd and goal at the one. Clausen under center. The center hikes the ball. Clausen pivots left, and sticks the ball in Riggs’ gut. Riggs follows Corey Anderson’s block through the left side of the line. Riggs is met at the one-yard line by an LSU linebacker, but he’s got momentum, strength, and leverage, and he lifts the defender and pushes through and by him, powering into the end zone.
For a touchdown.
And a win.
The LSU crowd is stunned silent.
Riggs kneels in jubilation.
Rick Clausen tries to maintain his California cool, but can’t help smiling.
Rick’s Redemption. LSU didn’t think he could play at LSU, so they let him go. LSU didn’t think he could play at Tennessee, so they ridiculed him. Tennessee didn’t think he could play, so they started Ainge. Quietly, Rick showed up and proved everybody wrong.
And when he did, what did he say? “That’s just the way I react, and you know what? I’m thankful for every one of those guys in that locker room ’cause those were the guys that kept me up when things weren’t going my way.”