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Justin Schuver | Monday, November 8, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee made only one big mistake against Notre Dame Saturday. But it proved costly.With 6:46 left in the third quarter, Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby intercepted Tenn-essee quarterback Rick Clausen’s desperation pass and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown to give Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.Goolsby’s first career touchdown would prove the game-winning score, helping the Irish to a 17-13 win over the No. 9 Volunteers.”Our offense was struggling a little bit, and we really felt like the defense was going to have to score,” Goolsby said. “If it wasn’t me, it was going to be someone else. The guys really stepped up and made plays when they had to today.”Tennessee collected 327 yards of total offense, compared to 216 yards for the Irish, but it was Notre Dame who proved victorious – with an opportunistic defense proving a major factor in that win. The victory makes the Irish bowl-eligible for this season.”I’ve always said there’s no better time than now,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said about his team’s goal to make the Irish eligible for postseason play. “We really felt a sense of urgency and knew we needed to get it done. “Now we can start to establish the level of play we want heading into the bowl game.”Among the players who made big plays was Irish defensive end Justin Tuck, whose sack of Tennessee quarterback Eric Ainge in the second quarter gave Tuck the Irish career record for sacks with 23.5 – he would add a second sack later in the quarter to increase his mark to 24.5 sacks.Irish linebacker Brandon Hoyte sacked Ainge during the final play of the second quarter, and the true freshman landed awkwardly on his shoulder and had to be helped off the field at halftime.Ainge proved unable to finish the game, and Clausen, Tennessee’s third-string quarterback, came in to replace the starter. Alternate quarterback Brent Schaeffer was unavailable for the game, after breaking his collarbone in the third quarter of Tenneessee’s game against South Carolina on Oct. 30.Ainge will miss at least the remainder of the SEC season with a separated shoulder.”Losing Erik was really disappointing to us,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “But Rick came in and did a good job for us. I told our football team to walk away from this holding their head high.”Notre Dame got off to a sluggish start, punting after just five plays on its opening drive and then allowing Tennessee to march 57 yards down the field for a 30-yard field goal by James Wilhoit – giving the Volunteers an initial 3-0 lead.Tight end Anthony Fasano continued his impressive play this season, coming down with Notre Dame’s only offensive touchdown of the game. Fasano’s catch came with 5:16 left in the first quarter.Notre Dame looked as if it would go into the half with a lead, but the Irish defense fell apart with 2:47 left in the second quarter. Volunteer running back Cedric Houston caught a short screen pass from Ainge and then broke several tackles on his way to a 56-yard touchdown.”I was really disappointed in that screen play we allowed,” Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “We missed about four or five tackles. We said at halftime that we were going to go back and stay with our game plan and it worked out for us.”Clausen’s interception to Goolsby proved costly, but the junior did not quit and came back two drives later to complete a 39-yard pass to Robert Meachem on the way to a 33-yard Wilhoit field goal – cutting the Irish lead to 14-13 with 1:28 left in the third quarter.The Irish made some breathing room in the fourth quarter, putting together a 11-play, 43-yard drive that culminated with D.J. Fitzpatrick’s 39-yard field goal with 7:23 left.The Irish defense held strong, stopping the Tennessee offense the rest of the game and forcing the Volunteers into a fourth-and-18 situation with 1:22 left in the game. Clausen’s pass failed, and the Irish were able to kneel out the clock.”Every win against a top team is big,” Willingham said. “We have played hard enough to win every game this year, but we need to learn to be more consistent.”