Brandon Hoyte’s tackle might have changed the course of the season for Notre Dame. It altered No. 9 Tennessee’s outlook Saturday night.
Tennessee lost the second member of its heralded freshman quarterback duo and the Fighting Irish capitalized with an interception return for a touchdown, then held on to win, 17-13.
Erik Ainge separated his right shoulder on the final play of the first half when he recovered his fumble and was tackled by Hoyte for a 14-yard loss. Ainge didn’t return, and the game was not the same afterward.
“You don’t just hit people to tackle them. You tackle them so they won’t get back up. I say that respectfully,” Hoyte said.
“We had a great opportunity. We’ve lost a lot of close games and we needed to prove what type of team we are. I think that happened tonight.”
Ainge’s injury came a week after fellow freshman Brent Schaeffer broke his collarbone.
Junior Rick Clausen, the younger brother of former Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen, replaced Ainge in the second half and almost immediately made a big mistake.
Clausen was being sacked by Derek Landri when he let the ball go. Notre Dame’s Mike Goolsby caught it and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead. The Irish (6-3) never trailed again.
“It feels good to be aggressive on defense rather than just sitting back,” Goolsby said. “This is just one of those huge games like Nebraska or [Texas] A&M; from my freshman year.”
The loss doesn’t affect the Southeastern Conference standings for the Volunteers (7-2). Victories over also-rans Vanderbilt and Kentucky later this month would send Tennessee to the SEC championship as the East division winner.
Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said he didn’t know when Ainge would return.
“Every win against a top-10 team is huge,” Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham said. “There is no better time for us to step up than right now. We couldn’t afford to wait another week.”