Not-So-Happy New Year for the Aggies

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DALLAS -- The stands were filled with Texas A&M fans going bonkers when their beloved Aggies were on defense. They were so loud Tennessee quarterback Rick Clausen went up and down the line screaming out signals to make sure everyone heard him.

At least, that's what it was like early, before the Volunteers gave the fans no reason to hurt their throats.

Looking nothing like the third-stringer he was most of the season, Clausen led No. 15 Tennessee to five touchdowns in just 2{ quarters and the defense had its way with the 22nd-ranked Aggies in a 38-7 victory in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday.

Winning was nice enough for the Vols after losing their last two bowl games and four of the last five. Winning big was especially sweet after losing those last two by a total of 40 points and never leading in either game.

"Probably our best effort of the year," coach Phillip Fulmer called it.

It also was the most lopsided victory in the school's 45-game bowl history. The Volunteers (10-3) came within 5:13 of their first bowl shutout since the last time they played the Aggies, way back in the 1957 Gator Bowl.

The rout began when C.J. Fayton turned a short pass into a 57-yard touchdown on the game's seventh play. Tennessee surprised A&M by continuing to pass and the Vols defense stunned the Aggies (7-5) by producing five turnovers. A&M had just eight all season.

"Go figure," coach Dennis Franchione said.

The Aggies were looking for a great ending to their big turnaround from last season's 4-8. Instead, they got a reminder of last season - their worst performance since a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma. It also was their fifth straight loss in the Cotton Bowl.

"We just had too many mistakes," said quarterback Reggie McNeal, who was 23-of-38 for 241 yards and a touchdown. He also threw an interception, just his fourth of the season, and was involved in two fumbles - a lost option pitch and a drop when hit by three defenders, one of whom ripped off McNeal's helmet.

Aggressive defense was part of Tennessee's game plan. The Vols were aiming for four turnovers and to be stingier than their last three games, when they allowed between 31 and 38 points each time.

"We were talking the whole bowl preparation about a comeback, playing better, not giving up plays that would end up being the difference," Fulmer said. "I'm really proud of that."

He should be pretty proud of outsmarting A&M on offense, too.

The Aggies expected the Vols to pound away with running backs Gerald Riggs Jr. and Cedric Houston. Instead, they turned to Clausen's arm and added to the confusion by using him in a variety of formations.

Clausen showed the poise and patience of a season leader, not a junior transfer who was beaten out by two freshmen and was playing only because they were both hurt.

He finished 18-of-27 for 222 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. In addition to proving himself, he improved his family's bowl reputation; brother Casey went 1-3 as Tenneessee's starting quarterback its last four bowl games, including a loss in the 2001 Cotton. Rick watched that game from the stands, just like Casey did this time.

He humbly accepted the offensive MVP trophy.

"My job is very simple: Get the ball in their hands," he said. "As long as I do that, good things happen."

Riggs followed his career-high 182 yards in the SEC championship with 102 and a touchdown on 18 carries. Houston ran 13 times for 62 yards, enough to make him and Riggs the first Tennessee teammates to have 1,000 yards in the same season. He also had a touchdown before leaving with a bruised thigh in the third quarter.

A&M's first two turnovers came on consecutive snaps in the first quarter and the third came on a fumbled punt. They helped Tennessee stretch its quick 7-0 lead to 21-0 early in the second quarter. It was 28-0 at halftime.

The Aggies had a chance to make it a game when Terrence Thomas ran 54 yards to the 15 on the opening drive of the third quarter. Then McNeal was tackled from behind on fourth-and-1 from the 6 and the Aggies hardly threatened again. They finally scored in the closing minutes on a 5-yard pass to Earvin Taylor.

"We moved the ball decently at times," Franchione said, "we just didn't hold onto it long enough to do what we needed."

The Vols hit 10 wins for the eighth time under Fulmer. They have a lot to look forward to next season as up to 18 starters could return. For this game, though, they remembered the past by wearing a small cross decal on the back of their helmets to remember former star Reggie White, who died last week.