The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era - #14: The Rally at Death Valley

Of the 11 other teams in the SEC, Tennessee has been engaged in a yearly rivalry at one point or another with 9 of them.  There are of course the five other teams in the Eastern Division whom the Vols currently play on an annual basis.  Younger Vol fans may be surprised to know, however, that before Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992 and the league was placed into East and West Divisions, the Vols didn't play Florida or Georgia on an annual basis, and in fact there wasn't much in the way of rivalry between those schools and Tennessee at all, a far cry from today's SEC landscape.

Before '92, the Vols did have annual dates with Auburn and Ole Miss; both Vol and Tiger fans of old will tell you that the other was their second-biggest rival at times.  There is, of course, Alabama.  And from 1992-2002, the SEC's scheduling format allowed for two annual division vs. division games, so the Vols played Arkansas each season for eleven years.

That leaves only two teams in the SEC who have never had a longstanding history with the Vols.  One is Mississippi State, and given that fans of each school seem to generally shrug their shoulders at the thought of the other, that makes sense.

But the other is LSU, which always creates an interesting scene on the rare occasion that the two teams do play.  Both the Vols and the Tigers have plenty of tradition and history on their sides, both have uber-passionate fanbases, but it's just one of those matchups that just doesn't happen very often - like Florida vs. Alabama - but when it does, it's very unique.

In this decade, however, thanks in part to the SEC Championship Game, Tennessee and LSU have met six times.  And each of the six meetings has been a classic:

  • In 2000, the Vols lost 38-31 to LSU in overtime in Baton Rouge in Nick Saban's first season at the helm.  AJ Suggs led a furious rally to tie the game up, but the Tigers prevailed in the first OT.
  • In 2001, the post-9/11 game at Neyland Stadium was one of the most unique nights in Tennessee history - still the fifth highest attended game in Neyland history - and the on-field product matched, with the Vols winning 26-18 thanks to Kelley Washington's record setting performance.
  • The return bout in the SEC Championship that season still ranks, in my opinion, as the most heartbreaking loss in Tennessee Football history, with the Tigers stunning #2 Tennessee in the second half 31-20 and denying the Vols a chance to play for the National Championship.
  • There's the game we're getting ready to discuss here.
  • In 2006, Jonathan Crompton had two prayers answered by Robert Meachem in a Top 15 showdown, but JaMarcus Russell did him one better with a last-second touchdown pass to give the Tigers a dramatic 28-24 win in Knoxville.
  • And in 2007, the Vols pushed LSU to their limits in the SEC Championship Game before Erik Ainge was intercepted twice in the 4th quarter, giving LSU a 21-14 win.  Those Tigers went on to win the National Championship.

It's rare to see the orange and purple in the same place, but when it's happened recently, it's always been great drama.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these six encounters happened on a Monday night in September 2005.  While the game didn't translate into a successful season for the Vols (which is why it's lower on this list than you might have thought it should be), what unfolded on that night alone in Baton Rouge easily places it in the upper echelon of this list.  2005 was a season to forget, but the memories of The Rally at Death Valley still live on...  

14. 2005:  #10 Tennessee 30 - #3 LSU 27 (OT) (Baton Rouge)

Having won the SEC East with two freshmen and an LSU reject at quarterback the previous season, the Vols entered 2005 with extremely high hopes and what appeared to be a ton of talent to match.  The defense was loaded (and would play that way before some key injuries made things different), and Erik Ainge was supposed to come into his own as a sophomore, with Gerald Riggs in the backfield to carry the load.

But that pesky Rick Clausen wouldn't go away after winning Cotton Bowl MVP honors that January, and the decision for the two players to split time would have a dramatic impact on the '05 season.  Tennessee struggled greatly with UAB in the opener, then went to Florida and never got untracked, putting the special in special teams in a 16-7 loss.

With a brutal schedule sending the Vols to LSU next, Fulmer declared Erik Ainge the lone gunman at quarterback, a move most in Vol Nation appeared to agree with that week.

There was more than just QB controversy brewing.  One of the great things about Joel is his longevity in the blogging world - I don't know anyone else in the UT blogosphere who was this in-depth four years ago and is still running today.  From his original notes on this game:

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.

Go Vols!

This game is an excellent case study of the deepest depths and the greatest joys that college football can provide.

Let me also say that there's a ton of talent in this game.  Tennessee's first drive comes to an abrut halt when Erik Ainge is blindsided and loses the football, with an LSU recovery at the 19 yard line.  On their first offensive play, Joseph Addai runs into the middle of a pack, then casually bounces back to the outside for all 19 yards and a quick touchdown, and we're turning the volume down on our televisions. 

It would continue to get ugly for the Vols from here, but while we're describing the 21-0 hole that Tennessee would eventually find itself in, don't forget that it could've been even worse:  LSU fumbled twice in Tennessee territory in the first half, and also botched the clock (Les Miles was young) at the five yard line at the end of the half.  So what was 21-0 could've/should've been something between 30-42 to nothing.  It really was that bad.  What LSU did do was convert a flea-flicker to the two yard line to then take a 14-0 lead, and then Erik Ainge unveiled his signature play from the 2005 season - we'll let Joel take the honors on this one:

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?

If rock bottom is a college education, Erik Ainge was well on his way to his degree.  There's a lot of hope in this moment, actually, for Tennessee fans today...because Ainge did bounce back from this moment (exiting with 7 of 19 for 54 yards, 1 fumble and 1 INT) to put together two great seasons under center for the Vols.  Jonathan Crompton, are you listening?

His bouncing back would have to wait though, as Rick Clausen - the aforementioned LSU reject - found his way into the game after all.  The hole was still 21-0, and as the second half began Vol fans had to wonder if there was any hope.

Iceman's brother puts together the most important drive of the game right out of the locker room:  6 of 7 for 40 yards, including the touchdown to Bret Smith, and we're alive at 21-7.  Everyone else who saw the Vols after this would benefit greatly from the film, but LSU never figured this out:  they blitzed Ainge like crazy and he melted in the noise.  When they blitzed Clausen in similar fashion, he stayed cool and kept dumping it.  Three step drop, make the simple throw, move the chains.  LSU kept blitzing.  Clausen kept being patient (finishing with 21 of 32 for 196).  And it kept working.  The remainder of the 2005 season saw defenses drop eight men in coverage and dare Clausen to beat them with his arm, which he couldn't do.  And they learned from LSU's mistakes. 

Still, the Tigers added three points to take a 24-7 lead heading into the 4th quarter.  LSU had been in full control of this game from the opening drive, never allowing Vol fans any sliver of hope for three quarters.  So when Clausen led the Vols on a TD drive to make it 24-14 with 9:35 to play, you still weren't very excited.  At least we weren't going to get killed, right?  I just remember thinking at this point that at least we appeared to have finally settled the whole quarterback situation, but that we needed a big play to give ourselves a real chance for the comeback, and Clausen didn't have the arm strength to provide it.

Instead, the defense provided it just two minutes later.

Les Miles was learning on the job, but so was JaMarcus Russell.  And instead of milking the clock and playing conservative, Russell tried to make a play.  And Jonathan Hefney was waiting.  Hefney's pick was returned all the way to the two yard line, but as soon as he intercepted that ball, the momentum swing was so instantaneous that I felt like Tennessee's chances of winning went from zero to at least 50/50.  When the Vols punched in to make it 24-21, there was still 7:15 on the clock, a ton of time...

And now Miles and Russell, who had been living off the energy and the emotion of the moment all game, began to wilt under its pressure.  LSU is driven back to 3rd and 16 immediately and fails to convert, and Tennessee gets the ball just 45 yards from the end zone.

It didn't have to be as hard as we made it - Corey Anderson was w-i-d-e open down the sideline when Clausen went to hit him, and he was a fingertip away from a Tennessee lead.  Instead, he dropped it and Tennessee settles for the field goal that ties the game at 24-24 with two minutes remaining.

Again, Tennessee's defense is heroic in holding LSU to three and out for the third consecutive drive.  Clausen goes deep to put the Vols in field goal range but is intercepted (there's a great shot here of Les Miles coming out of his headset trying to call LSU's final timeout - in a dead ball situation - and being wrestled almost to the ground by one of his assistants, who's trying to remind him that hey, that's a stupid thing to do.  Two years later he'll go for it five times on fourth down and be called a genius.)

In overtime, momentum keeps wearing orange.  LSU gets one first down but then has to settle for three, and on Tennessee's possession, the Vols finally decide to put the game's fate in the hands of their best offensive player.  Tennessee ran six plays in overtime, and Gerald Riggs touched the ball five times.  A screen pass produces one first down.  Two straight runs produce another.  The Vols pound it to the one yard line but Clausen is stopped on a QB sneak.

But on 3rd and goal at the one, Riggs gets the handoff and breaks one tackle at the goal line...and then he's in, and he's spiking the ball thru LSU's heart.  And though we're still trying to understand exactly how it happened...Tennessee had won.  Down 17 points just nine minutes and an overtime earlier, looking as bad as you can possibly look in the first half, with all of the emotion of the moment...and the Vols still came out alive.

The 21-0 halftime lead for LSU is the largest second half comeback in Tennessee history.  The 24-7 fourth quarter lead for LSU is the largest fourth quarter comeback in Tennessee history.  Along the way, Tennessee's defense holds LSU to 256 yards and forces three turnovers, and holds LSU to 2-for-13 on third down.  Rick Clausen looked like he was going to write himself into Tennessee Football history - and for this game, he still did - but the rest of the 2005 season simply wasn't as kind.

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