"I think his mechanics got out of whack," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He may have been a little excited but it was more his mechanics – a fundamental thing – than anything."
That's good news because faulty fundamentals can be corrected. In fact, Ainge seemed to correct his mechanics as the game wore on. After throwing three first-half interceptions, he redeemed himself by completing 17 of 25 passes for 153 yards with zero interceptions in the last two quarters. He was particularly sharp in the final period, completing 11 of 16 for 114 yards.
Although Ainge's performance for much of the game was not up to his usual standard, Fulmer was pleased by his big finish.
"Erik didn't play nearly as well as he had been – mistakes, misreads and not throwing the ball as well as he had," the head man said. "But it was great to see him come back and play as well as he did there in the fourth quarter."
Ainge performed brilliantly throughout Tennessee's first six games, leading the SEC in passing yards, total offense and passer-efficiency rating. He may have lost some of his timing and sharpness during the open-date week that preceded the Alabama game, however. That could explain his shaky start vs. the Tide.
"I can't put my finger on it," Fulmer said. "He practiced well for two weeks. He did come back and play well at the end."
Ainge's biggest play against Bama may have occurred following the overthrow that was picked off by Castille. Instead of hanging his head, Ainge raced downfield and bumped the Tide cornerback out of bounds at the 8-yard line, preventing a touchdown. Bama ultimately settled for a field goal, and those four lost points proved crucial as the Vols came from behind to win 16-13.
"The play Erik made coming across the field to knock Castille out of bounds is one you may look back on at the end of the season as really making a difference," Fulmer said. "It was a fantastic play but that's what he's supposed to do."
The head man said Ainge's TD-saving tackle exemplified the hustle and team spirit of the 2006 Vols. Fulmer noted that numerous players have been playing through injuries, staying after practice, watching extra tape, etc.
Asked why the team's chemistry and attitude is so much better than a year ago, the boss replied: "We kicked a whole bunch of butt, made sure people knew how things were going to be and made no exceptions. And, if somebody did something distracting or selfish, they were dealt with pretty severely."