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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee -- Cedric Houston rushed for a career-high 161 yards on 19 carries and Casey Clausen tossed two touchdown passes as No. 16 Tennessee opened its season with a methodical 24-6 victory over Fresno State. Houston helped the Volunteers wear down the Bulldogs on the ground, while Clausen, whose production slipped in an injury-plagued 2002 season, completed 18-of-31 passes for 159 yards.
"The offensive line made my job a whole lot easier," Houston said. "They had holes everywhere, so I just had to pick one. I feel like I'm reading holes better and running a little harder." While Tennessee was sluggish at times on offense, its defense did not give up any points to the usually high-powered Bulldogs, holding them to minus-one yard on the ground. It marked the first time Tennessee held an opponent to negative yards rushing since 1998 against Florida.
"Fresno State gave a good effort today," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who won his 104th game to tie former Volunteers athletic director Doug Dickey for 13th on the all-time Southeastern Conference list. "We should have knocked them out early. It's a building block at this point. We will get better in areas."
Fresno State got its only score when freshman cornerback Richard Marshall returned an interception 80 yards with just over seven minutes left in the contest. Facing a 4th-and-3, Tennessee elected not to kick a field goal and Clausen threw the ball right into the hands of Marshall, who raced untouched down the left sideline. The Bulldogs avoided their first shutout since a 10-0 loss to San Diego State on November 7, 1998.
Fresno State had a chance to get a late score but could not convert a 4th-and-1 inside the Volunteers 25 with under a minute remaining.
"We really didn't blitz that much," Tennessee linebacker Kevin Simon said. Our front four was getting to them. Fresno State is a very capable team."
The Volunteers drove 76 yards on eight plays on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead on Clausen's nine-yard TD strike to James Banks 2:34.
Tennessee bogged down, missing a field goal, turning the ball over with an interception and punting on its next three possessions. But the Bulldogs could not get anything going as they were 1-for-14 on third-down conversions and punted on their first 11 possessions. They managed only four first downs.
"We didn't have enough offensive output," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. We didn't turn it over and that was one of our goals. We couldn't get the ball to our weapons."
Jeff Grady completed 13-of-24 passes for 118 yards for Fresno State, whose longest drive came on its final drive when it turned over the ball on downs. The Bulldogs went three-and-out 10 times.
"They pretty much shut us down from the get-go," said Grady, a senior who started in place of the injured Paul Pinegar. "We knew what they were going to do schematically and we were fine. We just didn't make the plays."
"I heard they came here wanting to pass a lot," Tennessee cornerback Rashad Baker added. "Once we shut down the run it was easier for us. One thing we wanted to do was come in and play all four quarters."
Jabari Davis' 44-yard TD scamper 1:46 into the second period capped a three-play, 52-yard drive that made it 14-0.
A five-yard punt set up Clausen's five-yard TD pass to Tony Brown with 1:27 left in the third quarter before James Wilhoit kicked a 40-yard field goal 1:52 into the final period.
"Everybody was on a man and he (Houston) ran incredibly hard," Tennessee offensive lineman Michael Munoz said. "I think today was a great example of a team win."
Tennessee failed to sell out an opener at Neyland Stadium for the first time in 13 years, but still drew 103,860.