``We'd been talked bad about since last season. We expected nothing else after going 5-6. But we felt disrespected.
``And this game was not just Tennessee-Cal. It was the South versus the West Coast. It was the SEC against the Pac-10. They were screaming `Pac-10' before the game and we took that personally.''
The game was a statement for the SEC. A statement against Pac-10 football – no, those guys really don't play much defense. And a statement for Ainge and Tennessee.
Ainge is from Oregon, so maybe he took beating a West Coast team more personal that some other Vols. But if Ainge and Tennessee can find reasons to take each game personally, UT will be tough to beat.
Ainge, awful as a sophomore, was effective in his 2006 debut. He started the game by hitting Robert Meachem on a first-play bomb for 41 yards against freshman cornerback Syd Thompson, one of many times the Vols burned Thompson. And Ainge hardly slowed down, hitting 11 of 17 passes for 291 yards and a four touchdowns, the latter two both career highs.
He played so well, he didn't get a chance to finish the game. He was pulled for several series in the second half after guiding the Vols to an eye-popping 35-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
Even after he threw behind Lucas Taylor on a pass that was intercepted in the second quarter, Ainge bounced back with a poise that was lacking a year ago. On the next series, Ainge threw the first of two touchdown passes to Meachem, who finished with a career-high 182 yards and delivered a career quote.
``The receivers had a chip on our shoulders,'' Meachem said. ``Number 13 (cornerback Daymeion Hughes) had a lot to say at press conferences. It was like talking bad about your momma. Or like someone stepping on your shoes at the club.''
Stepping on your shoes at the club?
It doesn't get any worse than that, does it? I know I'd be ticked if someone stepped on my shoes at the club.
Tennessee's defense played as if it were angry at the start of the game. The Vols flew to the ball as if they were shot out of a cannon. They punished Cal runners and receivers with aggressive play.
The linebackers that defensive coordinator John Chavis said a year ago would be better than the touted 2005 crew were brilliant. Ryan Karl was everywhere with nine tackles. Jerod Mayo had seven stops and three sacks. Marvin Mitchell also had seven tackles, two behind the line.
It was clear early that Cal would have difficulty scoring, so dominant was Chavis' unit. The No. 1 goal was to contain Cal's run game. Mission accomplished. Cal, which averaged 235 rushing yards last year, had 64 yards on 23 carries. All-American Marshawn Lynch had 74 yards on 12 carries and 22 yards on five receptions.
That put the onus on Cal quarterback Nate Longshore, who had one career start under his belt. He wasn't up to the task, hitting just 11 of 20 passes for 85 yards. By the time he gave way to Joe Ayoob (nine of 22 for 187 yards) the game was over.
It wasn't so surprising that Tennessee's defense stood the test. It was the UT offense that shocked so many in attendance. Based on preseason scrimmages, there was no reason to expect the Vols to rack up 514 total yards. But there they were, rolling up 214 yards on the ground and 298 in the air.
Tennessee scored three touchdowns on six plays to open the second half and put the game away. When it was 35-0, even offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe was a bit surprised. He saw signs of the offense clicking Thursday before the game. But he didn't see this explosion coming.
It reminded at least one fan of the good old days when UT was racking up points in the mid-1990s behind Peyton Manning. The fan: Ashley Manning, Peyton's wife.
UT's offensive coordinator then: David Cutcliffe.
Cutcliffe did a masterful job of spreading the offense and making Cal defend the entire field. The Bears weren't up to the task, giving up five plays of at least 40 yards.
``David Cutcliffe has energized our offensive team,'' UT coach Phillip Fulmer.
And made believers out of his troops.
``If Coach Cutcliffe said play without a helmet, play with a mouthpiece, play with one cleat, I'd do it,'' Ainge said.
That kind of commitment from a player to a coach is rare. But that kind of commitment has made UT a much better offense. And no unit is more grateful than the Tennessee defense.
``Last year late in the season, you could tell the defense was starting to get frustrated,'' said Mayo. ``We'd give up 10, 13 points and still lose. But (against Cal) we proved to the nation Tennessee's offense is back.''
It's only one game, but indeed, Mayo appears to be right.
``We wanted to go out and perform,'' Meachem said, ``and show the world we're back.''
The world now knows. So does the Pac-10.
And so, too, do Tennessee fans.
NOTES: The win over Cal was the first for UT at home over a top-10 team since Georgia in 1999. … UT had two interceptions but dropped two more. … UT is now 25-4-3 at home against teams from two time zones West of Knoxville. … Former NBA player Danny Ainge, Erik's uncle, was in attendance. … Although new clock rules were aimed at shortening games, the UT-Cal contest last 3:21. … UT running back Arian Foster had a streak snapped of five straight 100-yard games. He had 69 yards on 17 carries. … An SEC crew officiated the game because the Pac-10 prefers to have its own officials for non-conference home games.