Ainge completed 6 of 7 passes for 56 yards in the third quarter but generated just two first downs and zero points, enabling the Gamecocks to pull within 21-14. He then finished the game as he started it – frigid.
The senior QB completed just 5 of 13 passes for 21 yards, with an interception, in the final quarter. He also suffered a potentially devastating sack on UT's next-to-last play of regulation. Fortunately for the Vols, freshman Daniel Lincoln made the sack a moot point by nailing a game-tying 48-yard field goal on Tennessee's final snap of regulation.
Saving his worst for last, Ainge completed just one of three passes in overtime for zero net yards. He finished 26 of 44 for 216 yards against a South Carolina squad that led the NCAA in pass defense (allowing just 145.9 yards per game entering Saturday's play). Still, he conceded that his performance was not up to snuff.
"I probably played worse than I have all season," he said. "I really didn't play well. There were some big throws when we needed them to win the game down there at the end.... I credit our offensive line and our receivers; they did a good job of getting open."
Ainge engineered three touchdown drives but the first covered just two yards (following an Eric Berry fumble return) and the second covered only 44 yards (following a Berry interception return). The last one, a 72-yarder, occurred just before halftime. The Vols went 29 minutes and 55 seconds into the second half before Lincoln hit his game-tying field goal with 0:05 remaining.
"I didn't play well tonight but defense and special teams kept us in the game and they won the football game for us," Ainge said. "It's always somebody else that's going to step up and win it. Today it was the defense, the special teams and this guy right here (Lincoln) who got it done."
Ultimately, Tennessee won despite being whipped 501-317 in total yards and 31-16 in first downs. That's because Carolina committed four turnovers and eight penalties, several of which proved devastating.
"There were a lot of things that had to go right for us to win this football game," Ainge conceded.
Two fourth-quarter fumble recoveries, for instance. The first, coughed up by Carolina's Mike Davis and recovered by UT's DeAngelo Willingham, ended a Gamecock drive at the Vol 16-yard line. The second, coughed up by Tennessee's Arian Foster and recovered by UT's Jacques McClendon, preserved the Vols' march to the game-tying field goal.
Finally, after Lincoln hit a 27-yard field goal to open the overtime period, South Carolina's Ryan Succup misfired from 40 yards.
"One of the best kickers in the league had to miss," Ainge mused, repeating that "A lot of things had to go our way but we kept fighting. One thing I'll say about this team: We always keep fighting."