It didn't matter that Memphis was without NCAA rushing leader DeAngelo Williams, who sat out the game with a sprained ankle. It didn't matter that Tennessee was a 19-point favorite over the defensively challenged Tigers. It didn't matter because the Vol offense continued its season-long struggle to score points.
Starting quarterback Erik Ainge had two of his first four passes intercepted (one "Oskie" was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty) and gave way to Rick Clausen, who rallied Tennessee from a 13-0 second-quarter deficit to an ugly but much-needed victory.
"We're not dead yet," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "The team is beat up a little bit, discouraged a lot with the way the season has gone. But they haven't stopped fighting."
Senior linebacker Omar Gaither probably said it best.
"Sometimes when you're at a place like Tennessee you take winning for granted," he noted. "But it was great to get a win after so long. It seems like forever since we won. We'll wake up feeling a little better tomorrow because we won today."
Clausen rescued Tennessee on this day, much as he did at LSU two months earlier. He directed two touchdown drives in the second quarter that turned the 13-0 deficit into a 14-13 halftime lead. The first was capped by a 39-yard TD pass to freshman Josh Briscoe. The second ended with a 15-yard strike to C.J. Fayton four seconds shy of intermission.
Stephen Gostkowski booted his third field goal of the game – a 35-yarder that gave the Tigers a 16-14 third-quarter lead – but Clausen answered with fourth-quarter marches that produced the go-ahead and clinching field goals.
Clausen finished 14 of 24 for 209 yards and two TDs.
"Obviously, Rick gave us a big lift," Fulmer said. "The drive right before the half was vintage Rick Clausen, a heck of an effort on his part."
Fulmer was clearly upset by Ainge's two interceptions. The second – thrown into double coverage – was particularly upsetting, even though it was nullified by penalty.
"He's just got to throw that one out of bounds," Fulmer said. "You don't make that throw…. Erik's got to understand to take care of the football. That's a prized possession. That has to be a priority, an absolute priority."
Fayton was Tennessee's top receiver, catching four balls for 45 yards. Fullback Cory Anderson had three grabs for 42 yards.
Arian Foster ran for 132 yards, becoming the first freshman since Chuck Webb in 1989 to record three consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts.
Tennessee's defense did the rest. After being burned for 204 yards and 13 points in the first half, the Vol stop unit limited Memphis to 89 yards and 3 points thereafter.
Minus Williams, who was averaging 184.5 rushing yards per game, Memphis relied far more than usual on quarterback Maurice Avery. He completed 13 of 29 passes for 128 yards and rushed 18 times for 72 yards and a touchdown.
"Memphis came out completely different than I thought they would," Gaither said. "Before the game they were like 69 percent runs. But they came out today with a lot of bootlegs, which was great coaching on their part."
Fulmer called Avery "as good an escape guy as we've played this year." Gaither also saluted the elusive Tiger QB.
"He didn't look that fast on film," the Vol linebacker said, "but in person was a little different."