100 Days of Vols #50 - The Rally in the Valley

Drama in Death Valley - Jamie Squire

Subtitle: Why I never leave early.

Neyland's Final Maxim is "Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes." This one in particular should apply to fans as well because (1) as Will often says, you get out of fandom what you put into it, and (2) there is an inverse correlation between the hopelessness of a game and the thrill of coming back to win that game. The worse it looks, the more you ought to stay 'til the end. Otherwise, you deny yourself the memory of being there when It happened.

Like the 2001 Florida game, the 2005 LSU game was weird from the beginning due to a scheduling quirk. The Vols were coming off an agonizing defeat at the jaws of the No. 10 Gators, and now they had to travel to Baton Rouge to take on No. 3 LSU, and the combination punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rendered the game being played on Saturday impossible. Baton Rouge had become a refugee camp for Katrina victims, and LSU had already postponed its first home game and played its second home game at the visiting team's stadium instead. They did not want to miss a third home game.

There wasn't any place for UT's players, much less its fans, to stay while in Baton Rouge, so Tennessee, living up to its namesake, volunteered to fly in the day of the game and fly out immediately afterwards. Fans would just have to stay at home and watch on TV. When Rita threatened Baton Rouge on top of it all, the game was merely rescheduled for the following Monday night.

The Vols were not only underdogs to the No. 3 team in the nation, they had the rare distinction of also being the emotional (dis-)favorite against a higher-ranked team. Everyone in the nation and perhaps the world was rightfully sympathizing with the entire state of Louisiana.

We had a football game to play, and our job was to kick a man while he was down in full view of his rabid fans and a sympathetic nation. Okay, then.

We uh, didn't do a very good job in the beginning. If you have a strong stomach, you can watch the first half animated drive chart at my old site. But if you don't want to look, let's just say that the offensive futility is strong in that one. 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.

So what was Phillip Fulmer to do? He put in Rick Clausen, which only added to the drama.

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. That first series ended when Gerald Riggs 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.

This is the point where many UT fans turned off their TVs. Oops.

Because the second half and overtime was a memory for the ages.

Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes -General Robert R. Neyland

Tennessee got on the board when Clausen hit Bret Smith for an eight-yard TD on our first drive. After punting and LSU hitting a field goal, Clausen scored again, this time on a one-yard rush at the end of a 75-yard drive. JaMarcus Russell then threw an interception to Jonathan Hefney, who returned it to the 2-yard line, and Riggs took it the rest of the way to make the score 24-21, Tigers. The defense held, and James Wilhoit hit the field goal that sent the game to overtime.

And this is where I'm just going to 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, informed by former LSU coach Nick Saban that he was not good enough to play in the SEC and more recently told by UT coach Phillip Fulmer that he was not good enough to start for the Vols, came off the bench 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.

Lots of Vols fans slept through it all, and who can blame them? It was late. We were underdogs an entire nation wanted to lose, and we had an historically awful first half. It was a Monday night, and we had work the next day.

But if you're one of the lucky ones who witnessed it live, you know the value of Neyland's Final Maxim. Even as a fan.

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