Ainge has had some ups and downs throughout his career. As a freshman in 2004 the Volunteers went 10-3, losing in the SEC title game, but beating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Last year, in 2005, Ainge led the Vols to a 5-6 record, with a lowpoint coming in a late-season loss to 5-6 Vanderbilt. This year he has the Volunteers back on track, with a 9-3 record and the 13th ranked passing offense in the nation.
Ainge has never been accused of being a mobile quarterback, averaging only 2.2 run attempts per contest. He lost 88 yards this year and had only four games with positive rushing yardage, with his high being three attempts for two yards against alabama.
This year he was sacked 11 times for a loss of 92 yards. Against Florida he lost 27 yards and against Kentucky he lost 25 yards. Ainge's mobility should not be an issue for Penn State's defense, although he tends to get out of breakdowns with his arm rather than his legs, which will require the Lion secondary to play through the whistle.
One area that Penn State has been focusing on defensively is Ainge's big play ability. He's had a series of big pass plays this year with plays of 84, 80, 62, 47 and 45 yards. This has been a spark for Tennessee in games and something Tom Bradley and Brian Norwood have been focused on addressing with their young, but formidable secondary.
One aspect of Ainge's play recently that seems to have Volunteer fans scratching their heads though is his final outing of the regular season against Kentucky, a game they won 17-12. In that contest he had his third lowest completion percentage of the year (the other two lowest were against BCS teams Florida and LSU) with 57.6 percent and was sacked a season-high three times. Most did not expect Kentucky to be a challenge for Tennessee, but Ainge's performance did not help the Vols easily dispose of the Wildcats as expected.
As Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer said, "He's had a good year overall, but he didn't play very well in the last ball game (against Kentucky). That's a challenge – for him to bounce back against a good Penn State defensive team."
A stat that is likely to make Penn State fans envious is Tennessee's redzone efficiency - 90.7 percent, which leads the SEC conference. Although Tennessee is a team that loves to "air-out" the ball, they show impressive balance in the redzone, scoring on 13 runs and 14 passes, with 12 field goals inside the 20.
So while the Penn State secondary is likely to see a lot of action in this game, Tom Bradley and his defense will have to be awake and alert for some redzone change-ups from UT. Ainge has shown poise down near the endzone and has been consistent on his reads. The versatility Tennessee whos inside the 20 will place a lot of pressure on PSU's linebackers, particularly with their reads in knowning when to step up or back in coverage.
Recently, Ainge has been talking about Tennessee emulating this balanced redzone approach against Penn State. As he said recently, "How well we're able to throw the football is going to determine how well we're able to run, too. If we can't run the ball, that makes throwing it that much harder. If we can throw the ball, that makes running it that much easier. We just need to go in with the mindset of having a balanced attack and go where the game takes us."
If that is truly the case, Penn State's run defense will have to come prepared, since the Tennessee numbers and film likely tell PSU's defense a different story about the Vols' game tendencies.
One thing is for sure, Erik Ainge will be a major factor in how Tennessee handles the Penn State defensive scheme. His success will likely be a barometer of the success of Tennessee as a whole.