Clausen once again saves the day for Tennessee

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The hero of the greatest rope-a-dope performance since the original, Ali vs. Foreman, was Rick Clausen.

No, seriously. Rick Clausen. Nobody's All-American. The middle child cursed to be lost in the shadow of both big brother Casey (a four-year starter at Tennessee) and little brother Jimmy (one of the nation's top quarterback prospects).

The guy who's been dissed, dismissed and demoted so often that he should have officially changed his first name to "Backup." The guy who was buried on the depth chart for two years at LSU, spurring him to transfer. The guy who then was buried on the depth chart last year at Tennessee, until multiple injuries gave him a chance to save the Big Orange season.

His reward for that was to be trap-doored twice more this season in favor of fancy-pants youngster Erik Ainge, a move that threatened to fracture the team. Clausen outplayed Ainge in the preseason but still lost the job. Then he regained it for the Florida game. Then he lost it for LSU, seemingly for good.

Funny thing, though. This Clausen guy just doesn't take a hint, despite being stepped on more often than the entryway carpet at Wal-Mart. He won't go away. He keeps believing he can make plays and win games, if someone will only give him a chance.

Just last week, when coach Phillip Fulmer benched him yet again in favor of his pet QB, Erik Ainge, Clausen was furious.

"I really didn't want to be here," Clausen said. "To be perfectly honest, I was unhappy with the decision."

Unhappy, but also unbroken.

"You put me in," he told Fulmer last Monday. "I'll get it done."

He got it done Monday night under Custer-at-Little-Bighorn conditions.

Understand this: LSU officials said in the wee hours of Tuesday morning that the Tigers had never, in the 112-year history of the program, blown a 21-point lead at home. Into this no-win situation walked a winner named Rick Clausen.

With the Vols surrounded, hounded and all but punched out on their feet, he authored one of the most amazing comebacks you'll ever see for a 30-27 overtime win over crestfallen LSU.

"There's a lot of games to remember in Tennessee history," said Fulmer, a player, assistant and head coach in Knoxville. "... This'll be one of those we'll talk about a long, long time."

Down 21-0 in front of 92,000 fans enjoying the loudest, giddiest group therapy session in college football history, Fulmer turned to the quarterback he'd kept treating like a bag of dirty sweat socks. He had no choice.

Ainge had just been spun like a rag doll in his own end zone and served up a discus-throw pop fly of an interception that was returned three yards for the score. The Vols were officially unhinged.

After the saddest month in Louisiana history, this was destined to be the Tigers' night. The crowd had passionately willed it to happen, turning Tiger Stadium into a surging emotional cauldron before kickoff. Meanwhile, Tennessee buckled.

The Vols were the sacrificial offering to a fan base that had to wait 23 heartbreaking days for its home opener, and the Vols played their compliant part well. Until an unwanted former Tiger stepped in and replaced LSU's feel-good script with his own Cinderella story.

"People say I transferred from LSU because I wasn't good enough to play," Clausen said defiantly before leaving the field, with most of a stunned home crowd still staring glassy-eyed at the orange-and-white celebration. "They can say what they want."

Say this: Rick Clausen, not Ainge or touted LSU starter JaMarcus Russell, was the best quarterback in Tiger Stadium Monday night. His stats (21-of-32 for 196 yards, a touchdown and an interception) only partly tell the story.

He led an 11-play, 61-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter to get Tennessee back in it. He led a 13-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter to make it 24-14 and spike the anxiety in the stadium. And after Russell served up a short touchdown drive with a horrible interception midway through the fourth, Clausen led a nine-play, 52-yard drive for the tying field goal.

By the time we reached overtime, the LSU crowd was slack-jawed and exhausted. They'd poured so much inner fuel into the first half, on a steamy Louisiana night, that they were as emotionally spent as the Tigers by overtime.

Once there, Tennessee battering ram Gerald Riggs took over. That left Clausen to celebrate like a vindicated man.

"I'm so thankful for the guys in the locker room keeping faith in me," he said. "Those are the guys that kept me going."

If you don't think Clausen has been the choice for QB all along in the locker room, then you missed the way he was embraced after the game. Defensive back Jason Allen hugged him like a long-lost relative. A member of the coaching staff jumped Clausen so exuberantly that he smashed him to the ground, appearing to knock the wind out of him.

"Rick's an awesome guy," said defensive lineman Jesse Mahelona. "We revolve around him."

Meanwhile, Fulmer was pulling a hammy jumping back on the QB's bandwagon.

"I don't know if there's ever been a better story than Rick Clausen," Fulmer said. "I really don't, in all of college football. ... Coming in and getting done what he got done is just unbelievable.

"I may have underestimated him a lot, obviously. ... He was mad as heck and he should've been. ... I admire him and I love him. He probably doesn't love me a whole lot right now. ... That's OK. I'm a big boy."

When the inevitable question came -- who's the starter going to be this week? -- Fulmer had his answer.

"I don't think there's any question that Rick will be the guy," Fulmer said. "The young one has an awful lot of talent, and he'll be fine, but he's got some work to do."

So do the crestfallen Tigers, who squandered both a 21-point lead and one of the most pronounced home-field advantages you'll ever see.

From well before kickoff, an incredible energy percolated through this old stadium. The Golden Band from Tigerland strutted into place, white shoes stepping crisply across the green grass, and the anticipatory roar began to build. The roar surged across Tiger Stadium, from deep in the collective gut of 92,000.

And when the LSU band blasted the four famous notes that start the school fight song ...

... Daaaaaa da-daa da ...

... It was time for a manic, primal, cathartic eruption.

The song is entitled, "Hold That Tiger," but there was no holding back. Not anymore. Four weeks to the day after Hurricane Katrina hurled rain and wind and destruction and death across the Gulf Coast, after the saddest month in Louisiana history, LSU would finally play a home game.

They had been denied this home-opening rite for 23 heartbreaking days, since the opener with North Texas was supposed to be played. They played their second home game across the country in Tempe, Ariz. Then this game with Tennessee was postponed two days by Hurricane Rita.

As the kid's sign read in the student section:

"Katrina is gone
and Rita is away
dear God, let me see
the Tigers play"

And so the band played, and the noise broke loose and pierced the broiling Louisiana air. And a few minutes later, when the LSU players' gold helmets bounced into view from the tunnel leading to the field, the noise grew even louder.

It pressed on your eardrums on the floor of Tiger Stadium. It chilled your skin. It damn near lifted your feet off the ground.

Les Miles stood in front of his screaming LSU players at the edge of the field and spread out his arms.

"Hold on!" Miles yelled over his shoulder. "Hold on!"

No shot, Les.

The players pushed their coach 15 feet until he was underneath the goal post, and finally poured around him. The roaring even healed the lame. Running back Alley Broussard, out for the season with an August knee injury, high-stepped onto the field like he was ready for 25 carries.

The emotional floodgates broke and they let it all go in Tiger Stadium. Death Valley became Celebration of Life Valley.

At that deafening moment you wondered whether this was what it was like during Billy Cannon's Halloween run 46 years ago. That fabled outburst registered on university seismographs. This one was off the charts on the emotional Richter Scale.

Monday night was the ultimate evidence that college football thrives on a raw emotion not evident anywhere else in American sports. But emotion does not exist in endless quantities and can only carry a team so far -- and in the end, emotion didn't work overtime.

Tennessee did, lifted to one of its greatest victories by Nobody's All-American.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.