LSU transfer Rick Clausen leads Tennessee to victory
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
By William Kalec
BATON ROUGE - Truth is, he didn’t want to be here.
Not like this, he told his famous older brother, Casey. Not on a different bench on the opposite side of Tiger Stadium, he said to his famous younger brother, Jimmy.
The sullen pregame expression quarterback Rick Clausen wore beneath his backward baseball cap mirrored the tone of game-week phone conversations back home to California in which his disappointment over the prospect of spending Monday's game on the bench spilled into loving ears. His night as Tennessee captain was scheduled to end before the darkness fell - a short jaunt to midfield for the coin toss.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, apparently,” Clausen said, unexpectedly sweaty, dirty.
Four hours later, the evening concluded with the forgotten prodigal son handed off the ball to Gerald Riggs, who ran for a 1-yard touchdown, capping an improbable 30-27 Tennessee comeback.
The stunning win keeps the 2-1 Vols’ SEC title aspirations alive into October, at least.
Finally, Clausen, the former LSU depth-chart casualty turned transfer, shined underneath Tiger Stadium’s elusive lights, filling his fairytale with 196 yards and a touchdown pass.
“I don’t know if there has ever been a better story than Rick Clausen,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “I really don’t, in all of college football. He’s a tough-minded guy. He obviously had to handle the disappointment at the beginning of the week, and he handled it with toughness and class.
“His teammates rallied around him, and obviously him coming in and getting done what he got done was just unbelievable.”
Hoping to establish some sort of stability for his 10th-ranked Vols at the quarterback position, Fulmer gave Erik Ainge the nod of approval after his clean-up work in a 16-7 loss to Florida. He was the guy. No doubt about it.
But all it took was a couple of glances at a tilted, 21-0 scoreboard for Fulmer to change his tune. Enter Clausen.
Ainge’s final completion landed in the welcoming hands of LSU linebacker Kenneth Hollis - an ill-advised, safety-avoiding heave that Hollis escorted across the goal line with 6:55 remaining until halftime. As the ball fluttered, Cameron Vaughn tossed Ainge WWE-style into the upright padding. Though not injured, Ainge was replaced on the ensuing possession.
In hindsight, LSU wasted a critical opportunity to add to its huge lead as quarterback JaMarcus Russell failed to get out of bounds on a second-down scramble deep in Tennessee territory, allowing the clock to expire.
“I was in the mode of playing,” Russell said. “I really wasn’t thinking about getting out of bounds.”
Clausen chipped into LSU’s comfortable advantage, connecting with Brent Smith on an eight-yard slant midway through the third quarter. Conversely, LSU’s offense - occasionally explosive in the first half - hibernated for the remaining 30 minutes-plus, compiling a meager 56 yards, leaving the stage clear for Clausen’s heroics.
“It was a freaking joke,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said after the fourth-ranked Tigers fell to 1-1. “It wasn’t anything they did. Total breakdown. To have a 21-point lead on a team like that and to come out and be as complacent as we were in the beginning. … In the beginning we were fired up, ready to go. I don’t know what happened. …We played like a joke.”
Clausen directed scoring drives of 13, two and nine plays in the fourth quarter to force overtime and another coin toss.
LSU’s lone extra possession stalled after one first down. Colt David - the Tigers’ extra-point specialist - kicked his first collegiate field goal (31 yards), providing a temporary 27-24 lead. Clausen completed his only overtime attempt, a 10-yard pass to Riggs good for a first-down to the Tigers 15.
From there, Fulmer stayed simple, handing off to Riggs (89 yards on 27 carries) three straight plays, moving to the 1. After a failed quarterback sneak, Riggs overpowered Tigers defenders for the winning touchdown.
“(My family) said, ‘You got to stay. You never know what might happen,’” Clausen recalled. “I’m so thankful to those guys and the 70 guys in the locker room. Those are the guys that kept me going and their faith in me. I will always be indebted to those guys.”