Tennessee-LSU football games have a long history of unexpected drama

When Tennessee travels to Baton Rouge this weekend, expect something goofy.

When I review my five trips to cover football games at LSU, there was always some wrinkle out of the ordinary.

In 1989, Carl Pickens’ 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown moments before halftime turned out to be the difference in a 45-39 Volunteers win.

A 20-0 Tennessee win in 1992 seems humdrum on paper, but the sideline was thick with internal intrigue. This win would be Johnny Majors’ last — a three-game losing streak followed — before he was forced out in November (and added three lame-duck victories to close the season), succeeded by his popular offensive coordinator and interim coach Phillip Fulmer.

LSU’s 38-31 overtime win in 2000 prompted Tigers fans to storm the field and tear down both goal posts.

In 2010, Derek Dooley’s defensive unit stormed the field. The resulting penalty for illegal substitution awarded LSU a bonus play, a game-winning touchdown.

But the 2005 trip tops them all. That’s when real life intervened.

Tennessee's Rick Clausen, Erik Ainge and Jayson Swain follow offensive coordinator Randy Sanders as he gives instructions on November 6, 2004.
Tennessee's Rick Clausen, Erik Ainge and Jayson Swain follow offensive coordinator Randy Sanders as he gives instructions on November 6, 2004.

The Vols won a thriller, 30-27, in overtime. Drama enough. However, Mother Nature had upped the ante.

For three weeks before the game, LSU’s campus had been a relief and triage center since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Refugees had doubled the Baton Rouge population.

LSU rescheduled its opener and relocated its Sept. 10 game against Arizona State from Baton Rouge to Tempe.

Then Hurricane Rita arrived, making landfall Saturday, Sept. 24, the date set for the Tennessee game. With advance warning, the game was postponed until Monday night, Sept. 26.

Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge (10) rolls out to pass during their game against South Carolina in a Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005 photo, in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols have shaken things up this week on offense with Randy Sanders resigning as offensive coordinator and Erik Ainge taking over as quarterback in an effort to revive the offense.
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge (10) rolls out to pass during their game against South Carolina in a Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005 photo, in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols have shaken things up this week on offense with Randy Sanders resigning as offensive coordinator and Erik Ainge taking over as quarterback in an effort to revive the offense.

The Vols’ charter flight left Monday morning, a rare game-day travel. On the ground, they encountered LSU fans more than ready for some football. Tennessee’s bus caravan to the stadium was engulfed by the crowd. One bus had four windows cracked by thrown objects.

Hotel rooms were hard to come by. John Adams, our News Sentinel columnist, found a friend with a condo willing to take in myself and colleague Drew Edwards. I slept on the couch.

Then the game kicked off. And an unlikely hero emerged to save the night.

This was a season of quarterback unrest. LSU transfer Rick Clausen had finished 2004 strong after freshman Erik Ainge’s injury. In 2005, Ainge started the opener, then Clausen got the nod at Florida, but was replaced early by Ainge in a 16-7 loss to the Gators.

Fulmer named Ainge as the starter for LSU, a showdown of top-10 teams. Clausen wasn’t happy. But he got his vindication.

Ainge had a night to forget. And forget he did after he was slammed headfirst into the goal post following a sack-avoiding but ill-advised underhand pass from the end zone that was intercepted for an easy LSU touchdown.

That lowlight put LSU up 21-0 in the second quarter. Ainge was done.

Clausen had left LSU, deemed unworthy by then-coach Nick Saban. All he did in his return to Tiger Stadium was rally the Vols from a 24-7 deficit in the fourth quarter. James Wilhoit’s field goal tied it 27-27. Overtime.

LSU went first, got a field goal. But momentum was on UT’s side. Gerald Riggs rammed in a touchdown and a weird night was over.

A Louisiana State fan holds a sign as the crowd cheers before LSU takes the field to play Tennesee in Baton Rouge, La. on Monday, Sept. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Paul Rutherford)
A Louisiana State fan holds a sign as the crowd cheers before LSU takes the field to play Tennesee in Baton Rouge, La. on Monday, Sept. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Paul Rutherford)

“I don’t think there’s a better story in America than Rick Clausen,’’ Fulmer said afterward.

Alas, the story didn’t stay upbeat. Clausen and Ainge shared starts and snaps as a season disintegrated.  Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders fell on his sword on Halloween. The Vols finished 5-6.

And they haven’t beaten LSU since that surreal Monday night in Baton Rouge 17 years ago.

Mike Strange is a former writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel. He currently writes a weekly sports column for Shopper News.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee-LSU football games rarely lack drama