The great 'kneel play' debate

A lot of Tennessee football fans are blaming head coach Phil Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders for the separated shoulder that cost the Vols the second-half services of Erik Ainge and, quite possibly, Saturday's game with Notre Dame.

With the ball on its own 32-yard line and mere seconds left to halftime, Tennessee decided against a kneel play to run out the clock. Instead, the Vols went into shotgun formation and hoped for a miracle.

The snap was a tad low but TV replays seemed to suggest Ainge took his eyes off it. Regardless, the ball bounced off his hands and rolled backwards. Still hoping to make a play, Ainge scooped up the ball just before he was hammered by a couple of Notre Dame defenders. Landing on his right shoulder, suffering a separation that proved far more costly than the 16-yard loss.

Unable to protect the 10-7 lead he inherited from Ainge, backup QB Rick Clausen threw a third-quarter pass under heavy duress that was intercepted by Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby and returned 26 yards for what proved to the game-winning score. Each team added a field goal thereafter, producing a 17-13 final.

Would Tennessee have won the game if not for Ainge's injury? Probably. He's a superior passer and Notre Dame's defense allows a whopping 251 passing yards per game. Because Clausen lacks Ainge's quick release and velocity, the Vols couldn't fully exploit the Irish's pass-defense deficiencies in the second half.

So, why didn't Fulmer and Sanders run a ''kneel play'' to end the half, rather than try the long-shot pass play that produced Ainge's injury?

''We thought we'd take a shot,'' Fulmer said.

Fulmer reportedly wanted to run a draw on the final play of the half but Sanders suggested a Hail Mary instead.

''I agreed,'' Fulmer said. ''So, in the end, it's my responsibility.''

The weakness of the Irish secondary contributed significantly to the decision.

''We felt like their secondary hadn't been great,'' Fulmer said, ''so maybe we could get a matchup, throw a deep ball and see what happened on the last play.''

The head man said that Ainge, once he got a low snap, was supposed to fall on the ball rather than try to salvage the play. ''But he's a competitor,'' the coach added.

Tennessee also had a low snap on its final possession of the game -- this one resulting in a 15-yard loss. Although Chuck Prugh was making his first career start as UT's center, Fulmer declined to blame either mishap on Prugh's inexperience.

''Chuck's played a lot of football for us, and he's done real well,'' Fulmer said. ''This was his first time as the starter, and we had some difficulties with the (shotgun) snap a few times.''


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