One play stands alone in the minds of many Tennessee fans as the sole reason any remaining Orange Bowl dreams can now be cast aside, but pinning the Vols' loss on Rick Clausen isn't just unfair - it's also dead wrong.
Sure, Clausen looked as comfortable in the pocket on third down and 12 early in the third quarter as John Kerry at a GOP fundraiser. And, indeed, he did provide Notre Dame with a lead it would not relinquish by blindly finding Notre Dame's Mike Goolsby for a score.
But Clausen didn't start at center, so he didn't roll two key snaps back to the quarterback. That was Chuck Prugh hanging the signal callers out to dry during key possessions at the end of both halves.
And Clausen didn't come into the game to play receiver, so it wasn't the junior who dropped critical passes on more than one occasion. That was C.J. Fayton helping to make sure that two UT drives stalled in Irish territory.
And since he didn't even start the game at quarterback, Clausen is hardly to blame for a lackluster opening half that saw the Vols manage to put up just 10 points on a Notre Dame defense that made Purdue's Kyle Orton (last seen on the Boilermakers' bench) look like a Heisman candidate.
There's plenty more blame to go around, so it's a shame that Clausen will continue to be raked over the coals until the Fabulous Frosh return from their injuries. The truth is, for nearly every snap of the second half, the LSU transfer actually looked like the guy who some thought would start for coach Phillip Fulmer this season.
That's right. Think back to spring practice and the summer magazines previewing the upcoming college campaigns. Long before Vols' fans were divided as Erik Ainge or Brent Schaeffer men or women, the debate centered on C.J. Leak and Casey's little brother.
What's changed since then? Besides two young guns riding into town and making waves, not much.
Clausen is obviously a talented quarterback - he never would have been mentioned as a starter for an elite program like UT if he wasn't - and finally had a chance to show it in his half of action on Saturday.
This Rick Clausen is actually better than the one who did battle with Leak last spring. He has had more practice time to improve his arm strength, and his sideline time has undoubtedly helped him absorb the offense. Like it or not, his numbers on Saturday (10-of-18 for 120 yards and the ghastly interception) aren't that different than those of the starter Ainge (11-of-18 for 149 and a score).
"I think I did some good things," Clausen said after the disappointing defeat. "I had a few mistakes - the critical one for the touchdown - those are things the quarterback can't do.
"You've just got to learn from it and move forward ... and try to play well for the rest of the season."
That's really all the Vols can do at this point. The quarterback situation, barring any unforeseen (cross your fingers, hold your breath, knock on wood and pray) injuries, has been settled for the rest of the regular season.
With Leak getting shuttled from position to position (none of them quarterback) and Schaeffer and Ainge on the disabled list, what was once a four-man battle royal for top-billing on the marquee has been whittled to one.
Fulmer's thoughts on the summer struggle for supremacy are as relevant today as they were back then.
"There's not going to be a controversy," he told Athlon Sports. "We'll play the quarterback that gives our team the best chance to win. It's as simple as that."
Clausen may be the only quarterback healthy enough to help the Vols win, but he's also more than capable.
It's as simple as that.
- Austin Ward is a junior in journalism at The University of Tennessee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clausen shouldn't be fans' scapegoat for loss to Irish
Published: Wed Nov 10, 2004 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 06:34 p.m.