The decision by Air force coach Fisher DeBerry will be second-guessed from the Smoky Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, but he felt his offense was clicking – which it was – and he didn't want to risk overtime.
It wasn't so surprising that Air Force went for two. UT defenders felt the Falcons would run the option, first looking to the fullback dive, which the Vols had trouble stopping all night long.
: Instead, Air Force ran wide into the strength of UT's defense – speed. And it didn't work.
It was one of the few times the Falcons' triple option wasn't effective. From the opening kickoff, Air Force flexed its muscles with the Flexbone. The Falcons marched 72 yards on 10 plays with the opening kickoff, had a 14-play field-goal drive on the second possession, scored a touchdown on a seven-play drive to open the second half, then punched in two touchdowns in the fourth quarter with drives of 78 and 58 yards.
Air Force ran for 281 yards, converted nine of 13 third-down conversions, completed seven of nine passes, rolled up 408 total yards and went five-for-five in the red zone.
Then, Fulmer raised his hands and raised his voice: ``We won. I'm happy.''
Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis didn't look so happy. Try as he might, he didn't have an answer for Air Force's unorthodox triple option. He was surprised the Falcons were so successful with the fullback dive. Ryan Williams had 98 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. The defense was caught off guard on some option pitches. And Air Force receivers ran free in the secondary.
Chavis said he tried a number of adjustments, to little avail.
``Air Force executed extremely well,'' Chavis said. ``They were quicker off the ball than I thought. We haven't seen the option in about seven or eight years. Maybe it'll be another seven or eight years before we see it again. By then, I'll probably be gone.''
At least when it counted most, UT got a stop. Air Force lined up on the left hash mark and ran a quick pitch sweep to the right. Mitchell knifed through to make a stop for a 3-yard loss.
``Chief (Chavis) made a great call,'' Mitchell said. ``I got up field and made a play.''
Tennessee's defense certainly didn't play with the fire and passion of a week ago when it buried California for three quarters. But Vol defenders vowed they didn't overlook the Falcons for Florida, next week's opponent. Instead, they showered Air Force with praise.
``They came out full of emotion,'' said UT linebacker Ryan Karl. ``I don't think a team with better athletes could have run it better. When they're disciplined and run their offense to perfection, they're hard to stop.
``It was tough to find the ball the way they hid it. And the fullback ran as hard as he could. This was very humbling for us. Maybe we're not as good as we thought. On the first drive they ran it down our throat and they made plays all night.''
Often times, a team that runs a timing offense like the triple option takes a few weeks to find a groove. Not Air Force. The Falcons were sharp. Quarterback Shaun Carney was sharp. A tough cookie who would to stick his head in a lion's mouth, Carney stuck his head into the teeth of the Vols' ferocious defense and came out alive, rushing 17 times for 52 hard-earned yards.
And he was precise with his passing.
``Some of the people that had played against him (Carney) talked about how accurate he is as a passer,'' Chavis said.
Carney didn't disappoint. He set a school record by completing 64.2 percent of his passes last season. He hit 78 percent against the Vols.
Fulmer said the game was tough for Tennessee because it was sandwiched between the Cal and Florida games, because of Air Force's unique offense and because it was the Falcons' opener.
``You've got to give a lot of credit to Air Force,'' Fulmer said.
You've also got to give a lot of credit to Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who had another terrific game – with one exception. Ainge finished 24 of 29 for a career-high 333 yards and led the Vols to scoring drives on each of their first five possessions. He completed 15 consecutive passes at one point and it would have been 22 in a row if not for two drops.
In two games, Ainge is an eye-popping 35 of 47 (74.5 percent) for 624 yards and six touchdowns – one more than all of last year.
But when UT had a chance to put the game away, the offense imploded. With UT leading 31-17 with less than seven minutes left, the Vols had back-to-back penalties – delay of game and illegal procedure.
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe took blame for the delay.
Then, Ainge threw an interception. Julian Madrid's 12-yard return gave Air Force the ball on the UT 22. Any kind of UT score puts the game away. Instead, the Falcons had life.
``He (Ainge) stared down the receiver,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I was surprised by the result. I thought he'd go somewhere else. I didn't coach it well enough.''
Cutcliffe said he went to the well once too often. But he felt confidence in Ainge because Ainge had been so accurate and had made so many good decisions.
``I did trust him,'' Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe had wanted to be somewhat conservative on that last possession, knowing any kind of score would create a three-score deficit for Air Force. But even though the offense scored on five of six possessions, Cutcliffe was disappointed the Vols didn't put the game away.
``We didn't do what we had to do at the end,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's coaching.''
Don't be too tough on yourself, coach. If not for your coaching, Ainge doesn't go 24 of 29, the offense doesn't score 31 points and Tennessee doesn't win.