Clausen revives QB debate

When Erik Ainge guided Tennessee to 10 quick points on the first two possessions of Saturday's opener against Alabama-Birmingham, two things seemed apparent:

1. Vol coaches made the right decision by tabbing the lanky sophomore to start ahead of senior quarterback Rick Clausen.

2. The Big Orange was ready to romp in its 2005 debut.

Three and one-half hours later, however, Point 1 was in question and Point 2 was in shambles. Ainge struggled mightily following his fast start and the third-ranked Vols had to hold on for dear life to beat the unranked Blazers 17-10.

Ainge finished 5 of 14 passing for 57 yards with two interceptions. Clausen finished 17 of 24 for 217 yards with one interception. Each man threw a touchdown pass. It appears that Ainge's hold on the first-team QB job is in jeopardy.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer conceded that the quarterback situation is "something we'll continue to look at," but downplayed the significance of the starting job.

"Whoever runs out there first to you guys (media) is a big deal," he said. "To us, we've got two good quarterbacks that are both going to play."

Though pleased with his outing, the diplomatic Clausen carefully avoided suggesting he proved himself worthy of the first-team job.

"Whether I start or not doesn't matter," he said. "I've just got to go out there and make plays. That (who starts) is up to the coaching staff and whatever they decide. My job on this team is to be a leader and, when I'm in there at quarterback, execute the offense the way we know how."

After fielding questions about the QB competition all spring and all preseason, Clausen clearly is growing weary of them. His disdain showed through when the topic was raised again moments later.

"Wherever the quarterback derby – or whatever you want to call it -- goes from here doesn't matter," he said. "I'm just glad we won. Basically, the questions about the whole quarterback thing … I'd like ‘em to stop just because we're worried about winning football games. We're not worried about who the quarterback's going to be.

"Those questions don't matter anymore. We came out with a win, and that's what counts."

Ainge started well -- completing two of three passes for 23 yards on his first possession, producing a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead. He was one of two on his second possession but the completion was a big one – a three-yard TD toss to Chris Hannon that boosted the lead to 10-0.

Although Ainge was 2-for-2 on scoring drives, Tennessee's coaches decided to give Clausen a series at this point. He completed four of five passes and marched the Vols into scoring position but Wilhoit missed a 47-yard field goal try.

Ainge returned to action for the fourth series and connected with Robert Meachem on a 26-yard gain. But Ainge's next pass, badly overthrown, was intercepted by UAB's Brandon Register, leading to a Blazer field goal. Ainge later told Fulmer his hand was sweaty and the ball slipped out as he was throwing it.

Ainge made another overthrow on his next possession, so Clausen got the call for the Vols' final series of the half. He promptly guided Tennessee 80 yards in 10 plays, hitting C.J. Fayton with a 12-yard touchdown pass 44 seconds shy of halftime to provide a 17-3 lead.

The Vols would not score again, however. Tennessee's intensity appeared to wane in the second half, enabling UAB to claw its way back into the game.

"We need to learn how to play with a lead," Clausen said. "When they're down, we've got to keep ‘em down. It was exciting to get out early with a lead but we didn't put ‘em out when we had ‘em down.

"That's a very good football team. If you keep leaving doors open, eventually they're going to walk through and make it a game."

That's precisely what happened.

Clausen opened the second half and moved the Vols to the UAB 31-yard line, only to have tight end Chris Brown drop a third-down pass. Clausen marched his troops to the UAB 14-yard line on the next possession, only to have a pass deflect off the hands of fullback Cory Anderson and into the arms of UAB's Kevin Sanders.

Ainge took over for the next series but, clearly pressing, threw two incompletions and another overthrow that was intercepted by Register.

With 3:37 remaining, the lead whittled to 17-10 and UT backed up at its own 12-yard line, Clausen got to lead Tennessee's final possession. Aided by an injury that felled a UAB defender, Clausen hit a wide-open C.J. Fayton for a 53-yard gain that changed the field position and sealed the victory.

On a positive note, the two Vol QBs combined to complete 22 of 38 passes for 274 yards. Riggs ran for 110 yards on 23 carries, and redshirt freshman Arian Foster added 23 yards on five rushes.

On the negative side, Tennessee had five passes dropped and three more intercepted. Clearly, the passing game needs a lot of fine-tuning before the Vols are ready to face Florida Sept. 17 at Gainesville.

"As you can see, we've got a lot of things to work on," Clausen said. "Having a bye week will be good but we've got to get back to work and get back to work FAST."

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