What a horrendous back-to-backer. After suffering an agonizing defeat at the hands of the No. 10 Gators in the Swamp, the Vols had to travel to Baton Rouge to take on No. 3 LSU. A daunting task under any circumstances, the situation was complicated immensely by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Baton Rouge is roughly 80 miles from New Orleans and had been serving as a refugee camp for Hurricane Katrina victims. LSU had postponed its first home game and played its second scheduled home game at the visiting team’s stadium. For various reasons, the Tigers wanted to keep the LSU-Tennessee game scheduled for 7:45 p.m. on Saturday night, but there was no place for UT players or fans to stay in or around Baton Rouge.
While some fans whined about the situation, the UT administration did not. Instead, the team geared up to play at the scheduled time and made plans to fly to Baton Rouge the day of the game and fly out immediately afterwards. UT fans would just have to eat their tickets and watch on t.v.
Then came Hurricane Rita, which looked like it might impact Baton Rouge, and even though LSU reportedly did not want to reschedule the game, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton held his ground, saying that he would not send his team into a hurricane zone when everyone else was leaving. The game was eventually rescheduled for the following Monday night.
On paper, the Volunteers were taking on the LSU Tigers, but it was more like the Tennessee Volunteers against the world:
- The LSU Fans. Due to Hurricane Katrina, this will be the Tigers’ first homegame of the season, and the usually crazed LSU fans, who always have it cranked up to 11 at home games anyway, will come absolutely unhinged Saturday night. Folks, this one goes to 12.
- The Nation.Again, thanks to Hurricane Katrina, the nation will be pulling for LSU. A small pocket of Vol fans in East Tennessee seek to kick a man while he’s down. Nobody but the kicker appreciates that.
- Themselves. And speaking of kickers, well, let’s just say the Vols have some work to do in this area. Tennessee has been its own worst enemy in its first two games. An uncomfortable win over Alabama-Birmingham was marred by dropped passes, and special teams goofs were the proximate cause of last week’s loss to the Florida Gators. The Vols must find their rhythm if they are to have any chance of victory at Baton Rouge this weekend.
- Rhythm.And aren’t the segue’s working nicely this morning? The Vols have yet to find their rhythm this season, primarily due to choosing to rotate quarterbacks Rick Clausen and Erik Ainge. Ainge played well the first two drives of the UAB game and had his rhythm broken when Clausen, who played well for most of the rest of the game, rotated in. The Vols arguably made the same mistake in reverse against Florida, yanking Clausen after two drives before sticking with Ainge. The receivers dropped several passes the first game, and Ainge said he and the receivers couldn’t get in sync against Florida. Enter Hurricane Katrina, which has displaced practically the entire population of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Thousands have sought refuge in Baton Rouge, increasing its population by 50%. No hotels are available for the football team Friday night, and so the Vols are flying into Louisiana on game day instead. A minor inconvenience compared to the displaced populace to be sure, but definitely not good news for a team seeking to find its stride.
- Hurricane Rita. Katrina’s little sister is bearing down on Texas, and Baton Rouge expects some ancillary action in the form of rain. Lots of it. Word Association Game: what do you think of when you hear the phrase “Volunteer Football” and the word “rain?” One nightmarish game in Neyland Stadium against the Gators, mmmm?
This Week on ESPN: 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 itself was an instant classic, at least from the Volunteers’ perspective, as my 3,831-word, almost-live post on the game would suggest. The gist of the post is “We are horrible! We stink! Ugh. We really, really, really, really stink. What were you thinking? Oh, man are we horrible. Hey. We scored. Woo-hoo. Whatever. Hey, we scored again! Interception for a touchdown, we’re only down 3! Field Goal!! OVERTIME! OVERTIME!! OVERTIME!!! Go Riggs. Riggs! Riggs!! Riggs!!! Touchdown!!!! The greatest game ever played! Rick Clausen is king!”
Or something like that.
Here’s a look at the pinnacle of futility that was the first half:
NOTE: A larger version can be found at the Animated Drive Chart page.
Just look at all of those orange segmented lines. What is that, a total of 80 yards or so? UT went into the game dead-set against employing the dreaded QB Rotation Scheme. We were sticking with Erik Ainge come hell or high water. But . . . well, let’s just summarize the offensive output in the first half:
Fumble. Punt. Punt. Punt, punt, punt. Another punt. An LSU interception for a touchdown. Fumble. Punt.
Two fumbles, an interception, and seven punts. Wow. And the half included one of the worst moments in UT football history, with UT at its own one-yard line:
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.
Rick Clausen, who had started his career at LSU and who had been allowed to leave because they thought he just wasn’t good enough to play in the SEC, came in on the next series and played the rest of the way. Clausen’s entry into the game was met with boos from the hostile crowd, and commentator Bob Davie said that Clausen just didn’t have the “wow” factor that Ainge had. Uh, good “wow,” or bad “wow,” Bob?
Anyway, Clausen led the team down the field on his first series, but they again stopped themselves when running back Gerald Riggs fumbled. They gained zero yards on the next offensive series and got a gigantic break when LSU mismanaged the clock on its final drive, allowing time to expire with the team on the six yard line without even attempting a field goal.
NOTE: A larger version can be found at the Animated Drive Chart page.
The second half marked one of the greatest comebacks in the history of college football. Touchdown. Punt. Touchdown, you’re-not-good-enough-to-play-in-Death-Valley, underdog quarterback Rick Clausen. A Volunteer interception to the three yard line leading to another touchdown. Great defense the entire half. Field goal to tie and send the game to overtime, which is where we’ll pick up my game-time post:
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 Clausen — The Rudy of the New Millennium, Nobody’s All-American — told by former LSU coach Nick Saban that he was not good enough to play in the SEC and told by UT coach Phillip Fulmer that he was not good enough to start for the Vols, came off the bench after starting quarterback Erik Ainge’s train wreck of a half to lead one of the greatest comebacks in Tennessee football history. Down 21-0 at halftime and 24-7 going into the 4th quarter, Clausen and the Vols beat all odds, finally finding an offensive rhythm after two and a half games and kicking a team while it was down in full view of its rabid fans and a sympathetic nation.
Rocky Top was buzzing Tuesday morning after everyone who had gone to bed at halftime realized they’d missed one of the best moments in UT football history. Where did this one rank? On Tuesday, many were saying that it was one of the five best wins in the entire history of the Volunteers, right up there with games like the Tennessee v. Florida State 1998 national championship game, 1998 UT-Florida, 2001 UT-Florida, 1998 UT-Arkansas and other legendary games.
Had the Vols gone on to have a good season, the Rally in the Valley would have been remembered as one of the greatest games of all time. Unfortunately, it’s now bound to be remembered as the sole highlight of The Year of Which We Do Not Speak.
The Ole Miss review is up next, and due to other obligations, will probably be posted Saturday instead of tomorrow. Thanks for reading.
Read the next installment of this series: Re-living the Tennessee Volunteers 2005 football season: Part 5, Ole Miss Rebels.