Even without the aid of hindsight, if UT could rewind that clock to the 23-second mark at which the play began, its staff would have likely decided to let it count down and gone into the half with a 10-7 lead and a healthy Ainge. From the very outset the play had the look of confusion and smacked of desperation.
Making his first start at center, Chuck Prugh snapped the ball low sending Ainge into damage control. Discretion would have been the better part of valor but Ainge tried to pick the ball up in hopes of making a play. That's when he was driven into the ground and his shoulder separated.
With Brent Schaeffer already on the shelf with a broken collarbone, Rick Clausen entered the contest for his first live competition in over two years. Attempting to avoid a sack on Tennessee's second offensive series of the third quarter, he committed a crucial mistake with an errant pass that provided the Fighting Irish with all the points they would need on this day.
Under the circumstances, Clausen didn't perform poorly. The same can't be said for UT's offensive line which surrendered five sacks and failed to establish a running game. Randy Sanders tried to take the pressure off Clausen by keeping him out of unfavorable down and distance situations. The impetus shifted to the ground game but that took UT into the teeth of a Notre Dame defense that had a very strong front seven. The Fighting Irish also did a good job of disguising their blitzes, both run and pass. Additionally, they may have added some new packages during the off week.
Notre Dame seemed to have a good read on when and where Tennessee would attempt to run. So it's no surprise Clausen had his best success throwing on first down and — even though he didn't sell play action particularly well — the move toward the back froze the linebackers and safeties enough to create passing opportunities.
Clausen can be a good game manager as long as the talent around him is playing up to its potential. He's not going to beat defenses with his arm, or size or speed. And he's going to be much more effective playing with a lead as opposed to bringing his team from behind.
Finally, Tennessee missed Jason Respert for more than his snap in the shotgun. He is also responsible for communicating blocking changes, anchoring the O-line and getting out to the second level of the defense where he's an effective open-field blocker.
When Respert returns he'll be snapping to a new quarterback on a team with lower expectations.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Alabama game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.
QUARTERBACKS (75) That's as high as it gets during a week when Tennessee managed just 13 points against a team that had lost three games to unranked opponents this season. Sure, it wasn't the greatest day for Tennessee passers but it wasn't bad either. Ainge completed 11-of-18 for 149 yards and a touchdown while Clausen followed in the second half with 10-of-18 for 120 yards and an interception. That's a total of 21-of-39 for 269 yards with one TD and one INT. The 12.8 yards per completion and 7.5 yards per attempt indicates UT may not have passed often enough. The secondary was where Notre Dame was most vulnerable and when UT's OBs were given time to throw they were effective. Clausen's critical interception lowers this grade but given his lack of reps in practice and his long absence from game competition it's also understandable.
BACKS (68) Another solid performance by senior tailback Cedric Houston who is playing the best ball of his career with only two regular season games remaining. Houston ran 18 times for 65 yards and caught four passes for 78 yards including a 56-yard reception for a UT's only touchdown. His 143-yard total came in 22 touches. By comparison, Tennessee's other 53 plays produced 184 yards. Gerald Riggs actually averaged more yards per carry than Houston (4.1 to 3.6), but he didn't run with the same authority he had shown earlier this season and finished with 37 yards in nine carries. Riggs may have been bothered by the hip pointer he suffered against South Carolina. With that in mind, it's surprising Tennessee didn't go to Jabari Davis in a critical fourth-and-one situation in the fourth quarter. Cory Anderson reduced the holding penalties but wasn't dominating as a lead blocker against smaller defenders. Derrick Tinsley broke his leg on his only carry. Ironically, there appeared to be room for him to run if he had cut up field as opposed to running outside.
WIDE RECEIVERS (64) Collectively, Tennessee's wide receivers had 14 catches for 182 yards and no touchdowns. Jayson Swain and Robert Meachem did most of the damage. Swain had five catches for 68 yards and Meachem had four catches for 67 yards, including a 39-yard reception that set up UT's only score of the second half. The rest of Tennessee's receiving corps accounted for 47 yards on five catches. Tennessee's most experienced WRs — Chris Hannon and Tony Brown — didn't adjust well to passes that could have been caught. The Vols also seemed to have problems getting open on routes against man coverage.
OFFENSIVE LINE (54) Tennessee lost 47 yards in sacks and bad snaps while averaging just 1.5 yards per carry for the game. As a team, Notre Dame recorded nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage which made it difficult for the Vols to sustain long drives. On the plus side, UT did win the battle of possession 32:32 to 27:28, but that had more to do with the defense than offense. Whether it was because of injuries, fatigue or missed assignments, Tennessee's O-line failed to ever take control of the line of scrimmage. The Vols converted just 5-of-17 third down attempts and were 0-of-3 on fourth downs. A week off will cure a lot of what ails the offensive line. Unfortunately, it comes a week too late.
OVERALL (66) The Vols had their moments against Notre Dame, but they were few and far between. The Fighting Irish carried the fight to Tennessee's offense and the Vols didn't respond like they have most of the season. Admittedly, the loss of Ainge made the team's performance more difficult to score.