Its Official

Three years ago, former LSU coach Nick Saban told Rick Clausen he wasn't good enough to play in the SEC.

Last week, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer told Clausen he wasn't good enough to start for the Vols.

On Monday night at hostile Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Clausen proved both wrong. He not only rescued Fulmer from an unfair benching, he might have rescued Tennessee's season.

With UT down 21-0 at halftime, Clausen rallied Tennessee to an improbable 30-27 overtime win over third-ranked LSU. It was the second consecutive overtime game between the two teams in Baton Rouge. LSU won the first one in 2000.

``To come back here and win at the place he'd been, I don't know if there's a better story in the world than Rick Clausen,'' gushed Fulmer after one of the greatest comebacks in school history.

``It was fun,'' said Clausen, who was 21 of 32 for 196 yards and accounted for two touchdowns. ``That's why you stay the course and persevere.''

It wasn't easy for Clausen to stay the course. He outplayed Erik Ainge during three August scrimmages. He outplayed Ainge in the opener against Alabama-Birmingham. He wasn't given a chance at Florida and was relegated to the bench in favor of a struggling sophomore.

Yet, Fulmer stubbornly stuck with Ainge because of Ainge's arm and mobility.

``I didn't understand it,'' Clausen said. ``But those 70 guys on the trip and family and friends kept me level headed. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here right now.''

That sounds as if Clausen almost quit. If he had, UT would be 0-2 in SEC play for the second time in six seasons. Instead, at 1-1, the Vols are still in the SEC chase with Ole Miss coming to Knoxville this Saturday.

Before the LSU game, UT said Ainge would play until he got hurt. I didn't buy it. I felt if Ainge struggled a little, he would stay in the game. If he had a train wreck, Clausen would play. Ainge had a train wreck.

In eight first-half series, Ainge had no points and four first downs - two via penalty. On his final possession, he made an incredibly bonehead play. Pressured in the end zone, he blindly flipped the ball toward the line of scrimmage. It was intercepted for a touchdown. LSU led 21-0.

Ainge was knocked into the goal post support and didn't return. He shouldn't have. In fact, he shouldn't start another game this season - unless Clausen gets hurt. What else does Clausen have to do to prove he's the guy?

``Thank God for Rick Clausen,'' Fulmer said. ``Having done it enough, I can admit mistakes and get away with it.''

Indeed, Fulmer admitted he made a mistake in choosing Ainge over Clausen. Ainge might be a better quarterback down the road, but he's not now.

``That rascal is something else,'' Fulmer said of Clausen. ``He's got a great chemistry with this team. I think we found a quarterback. He is so fantastic and I'm so proud of him.''

Clausen proved to be a profit of sorts.

``He told me on Monday, `Coach, I respect what you're doing but I think you're wrong. You put me in and I'll lead us to a win,''' Fulmer said.

Fulmer said UT's players rally around Clausen. But he already knew that. That's one reason Clausen was elected a team captain. It's one reason he should have started the opener and the Florida game and the LSU game.

``Rick's got something about him,'' guard-center Rob Smith said. ``He's got that it - whatever it is.''

Yes, Clausen has that it. Why it's taken Fulmer so long to see it is a mystery.

``Sometimes when Rick is in the game, the offense flows a little better,'' said receiver C.J. Fayton, who caught eight passes for 61 yards.

The offense hadn't flowed at all with Ainge, who was 7 of 19 for 54 yards against LSU with an interception and lost fumble. The Vols went 17 consecutive possessions without scoring, with Ainge at the helm for all but three. Clausen might have put UT on the board before halftime but Gerald Riggs fumbled at midfield.

On the first drive of the second half, Clausen took the Vols 61 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7, LSU. On the next possession, LSU was called for pass interference on third-and-8 early in the fourth quarter. It was one of the game's key plays. An LSU stop would have killed UT's momentum. Instead, the Vols went 75 yards on 13 plays to cut the gap to 24-14 with 9:35 left. The game was on.

A Jonathan Hefney interception led to a Riggs 1-yard dive to make it 24-21 with 7:15 left, silencing the crowd.

LSU, which gained 56 yards in the second after getting 200 in the first half, stalled again. UT almost took the lead but Cory Anderson dropped a would-be touchdown pass. James Wilhoit eventually kicked a field goal to force overtime.

After an LSU field goal, Riggs accounted for all 25 yards in overtime, overpowering an LSU defender at the goal line for the game-winner.

``We weren't going to kick a field goal in overtime,'' Clausen said. ``We were either going to win or lose the game.''

Clausen said UT didn't wave a magic wand when he went in.

``When I walked into the huddle, I think the guys knew I'd get them the ball and let them make plays,'' said Clausen, who continually picked on the weak side of the LSU secondary. ``The offensive line did a phenomenal job. I told them, `If you give me time, we'll move the football.

``This game shows the character this football team has.''

It also shows the character of Rick Clausen.

GAME NOTES: LSU coach Les Miles is now 4-11 against top 25 teams. . LSU has been the higher ranked team six times against UT and won just once, in 1988. . Tennessee is now 5-1 in overtime, its only loss to LSU in 2000. . Arron Sears played four positions on the offensive line, all but center. . UT played just seven offensive linemen. . The Vols won for the second time ever when attempting at least 50 passes. They were 28 of 51 for 250 yards. The only other win when passing at least 50 times was over Southern Miss in 1997. . UT won despite 14 penalties for 97 yards. LSU had 11 penalties for 71 yards. . Since 2000, LSU had been 33-2 when holding opponents to less than 100 rushing yards. Make that 33-3. UT had 70 yards on 34 carries. . Since 2000, LSU was 40-3 when leading at halftime. Make that 40-4. . LSU's SEC-best 10-game home winning streak was snapped.

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