'06 Florida game haunts Ainge

Like a dedicated fisherman, Tennessee's star quarterback has spent a lot of time thinking about "the one that got away."

As the Vols prepare for Saturday's game at Florida, Erik Ainge is reminded yet again of the disappointing conclusion to last year's game. Down 21-20 in the final minute, Tennessee faced a a third-and-10 at Florida's 45-yard line. One more first down would put the Vols in range for a 52-yard field goal by James Wilhoit, who had won the 2004 UT-Florida game with a 51-yard boot in the final seconds.

Ainge was unable to convert that third-and-10 play and, 12 months later, he is unable to shake the memory.

"Lucas Taylor was open," Ainge recalled, "and I tried to force it to Meachem on third down."

Robert Meachem, an All-American, was well beyond the first-down marker. Conversely, Taylor, a little-used reserve, was several yards short of first-down yardage. Trying to hit a well-covered Meachem, Ainge threw incomplete. Another incompletion on fourth down sealed Tennessee's doom.

"We were 10 yards away from a field-goal attempt," Ainge recalled. "We were on the 45 and if we'd gotten to the 35 Wilhoit could've made it (game-winning kick) just like in '04... We had two plays to get 10 yards."

Ainge tried to get all 10 yards on one play, however, and Florida stopped him ... twice.

Learning from that mistake, Ainge has thrown short of the first-down markers several times this year, hoping a teammate can make a play to pick up the extra yards. Some fans on the sports call-in shows have complained loudly about this.

Ainge's rebuttal: You've got a better chance to pick up a first down by completing a five-yard pass than by throwing a 10-yard incompletion. It's hard to argue with that logic.

"That's the point Coach Cut (offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe) has been making: Lay it off. You don't have to throw it past the (first-down) sticks," Ainge said. "Let other guys make plays.

"That's the mental approach I've taken from that (2006 Florida) game to now."

Florida used last September's 21-20 defeat of Tennessee as a springboard to the 2006 national title. Ainge finds no consolation in that whatsoever.

"You don't want to brag to yourself: 'Oh, we almost beat Florida' because we don't feel like that," he said. "We don't feel like an inferior team that's lucky just to be close."

Tennessee's players were not content to play Florida close in 2006. And they won't be content to play the Gators close in 2007, even though Florida is ranked No. 4 nationally and Tennessee No. 24. The Vols consider anything short of victory to be failure.

"That's the way we approach it," Ainge said. "Everything we do, from the offseason up to now, is getting ready for this one right here."

To his credit, the Vol quarterback declined to call Saturday's showdown "just another game" in a long season.

"Usually the winner of this game puts itself in a good position for the SEC Championship," he said. "That's how it's been. This game is huge. We know that. They know that. This is a must-win for us, a must-win for them.

"That's really all you can say about it: It's a must-win for both teams."


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