Not flawless, but close

I've watched probably 40 Tennessee football openers – covering half of those – and I'm not sure I've ever seen a Game 1 performance as solid as Saturday's 35-18 upset of No. 9 Cal. It was close to flawless.

The Vols had one fumble (by Jayson Swain) but recovered it. They threw one interception but it was on a pass tipped by the intended receiver (Lucas Taylor). They did not allow a sack and, incredibly, did not have a minus-yardage rush in 41 carries. They were penalized just six times for 47 yards. There were no dropped passes. The defense was impregnable until the score got out of hand (35-0).

Asked if he found his team's relatively mistake-free performance impressive, head man Phil Fulmer replied in the affirmative.

"It really was," he said. "We kept down-and-distance in our favor and we played within ourselves. We kept Cal's very aggressive defense on their heels early. Our first-down production ended up really good. It's great to call plays when you're able to do that."

Tennessee gained 41 yards on its first play of the game. Subsequent first-down plays picked up 6 yards, 3, 1, 7, 9, 2, 3, 0 on an incompletion, 0 on an incompletion, 9, 2, 2, 3, 0 on an incompletion, 2, 43, 4, 5, 5, no gain, 3, 2, 22 and 2.

Quarterback Erik Ainge, who threw three interceptions in last year's opener, was much more efficient in his 2006 debut. That may be a credit to new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.

"Absolutely," Fulmer said. "Erik is responding very well to Coach Cutcliffe and what we're asking him to do. Erik isn't conservative but he's keeping it in a management-type (mode)."

Ainge's confidence, which appeared shattered in 2005, seemed perfectly intact in the ‘06 opener.

"He's very confident," Fulmer said. "He doesn't have anyone looking over his shoulder and isn't looking over someone's shoulder. He's proving to the coaches he should be the quarterback at Tennessee."

Despite three new starters, Tennessee's offensive line also looked pretty good in Game 1. The fact there were no sacks and no minus-yardage runs suggests the blockers did a solid job.

"I thought we'd be OK in the offensive line because those guys are fighters," Fulmer said. "They fought their rears off against a good (Cal defensive) line. I think we'll be OK if we keep in mind what we're trying to do in practice and stay away from injuries because we're not very deep."

To help the new-look line, Fulmer used some max-protection schemes. He also used some rollouts to help keep Tennessee's passers out of harm's way.

"We kept them (Golden Bears) off balance with a moving pocket," Fulmer said. "Protection, for the most part, was firm. They did a really good job, especially considering the opponent."


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