A true ‘Road Warrior’

By Tom Mattingly

Tennessee and Notre Dame squared off at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, on Nov. 3, 2001, as a crowd of 80,795 watched on a picture-perfect November day. It was one of those afternoons the South Bend Chamber of Commerce would like to have at the ready whenever Chambers of Commerce show off their city.

This has always been one great venue. The Sporting News had ranked Notre Dame Stadium No. 2 in the country, behind only UT’s Neyland Stadium. It was the 160th consecutive sellout and 208th in the past 209 games.

This was the type of game that makes you old before your time. Tennessee and Notre Dame had knocked heads for 59 minutes and 16 seconds, with Tennessee leading and having the ball on the 1-yard line going in.

It was 21-18 and Notre Dame still had a breath of life, a short breath, but a breath nonetheless.

Tennessee called time out and the brain trust on the east sideline had to come up with a play that would cinch the game with an orange and white ribbon. Or, kick a field goal and hope that some kind of lightning didn’t strike on the ensuing kickoff.

Casey Clausen, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 228 yards and one score, told the coaches he wanted the ball, and Phillip Fulmer et al., said O.K.

Clausen came to the line at the north end, the end in front of “Touchdown Jesus,” and sent tight end Jason Witten in motion to the left. Casey then rolled right and found the end zone for the score that sealed the game at 28-18.

Tennessee had spent most of the first half trying to overcome poor field position and an early turnover that cost the Vols a 29-yard gain to the Irish 33. The Vols also started at their 1 late in the first quarter, and it took a while to recover.

But the Vols somehow led 7-3 at the half thanks to the ever-vigilant Julian Battle causing two fumbles and, lo and behold, scoring after finding the pigskin on the second fumble to establish a 7-0 lead.

It was 7-3 at the half as the Vols forced a Notre Dame field goal when it looked as if a TD might have been in the offing.

The Vols had a 19:55–10:05 deficit in time of possessional at the half, and you had to wonder when the time deficit might bite them. But when you consider the good guys were behind 31-14 at the half 10 years before, the situation actually looked pretty good.

Things got worse in the third quarter as Clausen’s pass to Bobby Graham on third-and-6 at the 24 was intercepted and run in for an Irish touchdown. It was 10-7, Fighting Irish, with 13:23 left.

Early in the fourth quarter, the score was 21-10 with the gloaming of a northern Indiana evening enveloping the historic arena. Notre Dame pulled to within 21-18 after a monster drive and two-point conversion that saw the Irish make big play after big play. That woke up the crowd again.

A possession later, Eddie Moore took away 9 with a blitz from the near corner and Dominique Stevenson made the key play by grabbing an oskie that was tipped at least twice by his teammates (once by John Henderson and again by Albert Haynesworth) and returning it to the 17.

That led to the Vols putting the game away.

The Vols went for it all on the first play, with Clausen barely missing connections with Kelley Washington, known to some as “The Future,” down the far side. Stephens ran for no gain and, with a Notre Dame timeout, it was third-and-10 at the 25.

Tradition dictated that somehow Notre Dame would stop the Vols and march relentlessly to the winning score. That didn’t happen.

The Vols did have some traditions of their own to rely on. Clausen found Eric Parker on the far side for 20 and the Vols had it first-and-goal at the 5.

The end zone was so near, yet so far away. Clausen came to the line and scored at right end.

That day, Tennessee made the requisite plays and left with its second victory to that time in three tries at the “House That Rockne Built,” fourth in six tries overall against the Fighting Irish to that time.

It was a tough, but rewarding victory. The Vols always seemed to have enough in their tank to win, but it was never easy. No one expected it to be so, and it wasn’t.

In his career, Clausen, a true “road warrior,” led the Vols to victories at Arkansas, Alabama (twice), Notre Dame, Kentucky (twice), and Florida (twice), not to mention a neutral site pasting of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2002, by 45-17.

The overall series is now deadlocked at 4-4, with each team winning twice at home and twice on the road. The word “classic” is often overused, but there were a bunch of memorable moments emanating from this series, and fans on each side can’t wait for the next series of games, regardless of the location.