Mitchell saves day for UT

With 1:35 to play Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, Air Force was just three yards from the end zone and a two-point conversion that would hand 11th-ranked Tennessee a stunning one-point loss. Fortunately for the Vols, Xavier Mitchell got in the way.

Mitchell, a reserve defensive end, collared Chad Hall for a three-yard loss to foil the two-point try and seal a heart-stopping 31-30 Volunteer victory. Afterward, the Vol hero credited defensive coordinator John Chavis for making the game-saving play possible.

"Chief just made a great call," Xavier Mitchell said. "On that play I lined up wide, outside the wing. When they (Falcons) put the ball on the right hash, my thought was they were going to pop it to the left because it was so wide a field. I just got upfield ... there he was, and I made the play."

Leading 31-17, Tennessee drove to the Air Force 14-yard line with around 7 minutes left. Even a field goal would've put the game out of reach but Erik Ainge marred an otherwise brilliant performance by throwing an interception. The Falcons promptly launched a 12-play touchdown drive, recovered an onsides kick, then scored on a six-play TD drive that narrowed the gap to 31-30 and set up Mitchell's game-saving heroics.

Air Force might've sent the game into overtime by kicking the PAT but head coach Fisher DeBerry elected to go for the two-point try and a regulation win in a gutsy move.

"I think they came in here to win the game," Tennessee head man Phillip Fulmer said. "They didn't want to play an overtime. When you're an underdog, sometimes that's the best thing to do.

"The clock was in their favor and it was their call. If they had made it they would've been heroes.

"I'm glad they did (go for two) and I'm glad they didn't make it."

Except for the fourth-quarter interception, Ainge was spectacular. He completed 15 passes in a row at one stretch and finished 24 of 29 for a career-best 333 yards and three touchdowns.

"Erik was outstanding," Fulmer said. "Erik was really throwing the football well. We protected him well and he was very sharp. But we'll face a lot better defenses than what we faced tonight."

Of Ainge's late interception, Fulmer said: "We could've put the game away if we don't throw the interception. I think he stared down the receiver a bit too long. That's what it looked like from the sidelines."

Robert Meachem had his second consecutive 100-yard receiving performance. After catching five balls for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the opener vs. Cal, he caught eight passes for 115 yards and two more TDs in Game 2.

Tennessee's ground game never got going, however. No. 1 tailback Arian Foster injured his ankle in the first half and did not play the second half. He finished with 22 yards on seven carries. Backup Montario hardesty played most of the last three quarters, finishing with 72 yards on 19 carries.

The Vols finished with just 79 net rushing yards. Conversely, Air Force rushed 51 times for 281 yards as quarterback Shaun Carney dazzled the Vols with his nifty fakes and shifty moves.

"I'm standing on the sideline and I can't tell who had the ball," Fulmer said. "They do a great job (running the triple-option). You've got to give those kids from Air Force a whole lot of credit. They came in here and played their hearts out."

Carney dominated the first quarter, rushing 10 times for 48 yards and completing all three pass attempts for another 56 yards. The Falcons scored a touchdown on their first possession of the game. James Wilhoit answered with a 35-yard field goal for Tennessee but Air Force countered with a 22-yard field goal that produced a 10-3 lead.

Tennessee scored touchdowns on its next four possessions - a 4-yard pass to Meachem, a 5-yard pass to Jayson Swain, a 3-yard run by Hardesty and a 5-yard pass to Meachem - but never figured out how to stop the Falcons' option attack. Ryan Williams finished with 98 yards on 16 carries, Hall 81 on 11 and Carney 52 on 17. Carney also completed 7 of 9 passes for 127 yards.

Vol defensive back Inquoris Johnson suffered a neck injury in the fourth quarter and was taken to UT Hospital for observation. He was able to move his arms and legs, so there appears to be no paralysis.

The Vols now take a step up in class, hosting SEC East rival Florida Saturday night at 8. Both teams are 2-0 and nationally ranked.

"We're getting into some real football now," Fulmer said. "These people we're getting ready to play next week and the following weeks are a lot different than Air Force's defense. I can assure you of that."


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