The Vols had never rallied to win at home when trailing by 15 points.
Entering the fourth quarter, Ainge had completed 17 of 28 passes for a mere 138 yards. After the first two drives of the game, he was rendered ineffective, making a huge mistake with a bullet lateral to tight end Chris Brown at the end of the half to give Vanderbilt a gift field goal.
But this was gut-check time, and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe knew it.
So he got on the press-box phone and relayed a stern message to his senior.
``I said, `We're going to win this football game,'' Cutcliffe said. ``You just take a deep breath and play like you're capable of playing.'''
Ainge did. He hit 8 of 9 passes during a touchdown drive that cut Vanderbilt's lead to 24-22. He connected of 12 of 15 passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.
``When a guy who hasn't been perfect steps up and does what he has to do, that's a great step and a tribute to him and his character,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I was really proud of the way he handled it down the stretch.''
What Ainge managed to do – respond after a poor performance – is the next step in his maturation, Cutcliffe said.
``If he's going to have aspirations of playing in the NFL and you're going to play championship-type football,'' Cutcliffe said, ``whether you've thrown four interceptions in three quarters, you've got to be good when the situation is at its worst.''
Cutcliffe said he felt Ainge was at his best in the clutch.
Cutcliffe said he had a similar conversation with Ainge late in the South Carolina game, when Ainge bounced back late in the game after having a miserable second half.
``I can bounce back,'' Ainge said. ``I wasn't worried. … When it's close and the game is on the line, we get it done. … We didn't have to do anything crazy. We just had to make plays we were supposed to make.
``We knew we were going to win the football game. It wasn't like, `I hope we would.'''
Maybe so, but Tennessee should have never been behind 15 points entering the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt. Granted, Vandy isn't bad. It beat South Carolina 17-6 and should have defeated Georgia. But it also lost 35-7 to Auburn and 49-22 to Florida.
Earlier this season, I thought Ainge was a sure-fire first-down NFL draft pick because of his big arm and production. I thought he could be an NFL starter.
Now, I'm not so sure. He has lost some accuracy. His decision making at times makes me scratch my head. He hasn't handled pressure well. It's almost as if he's passing too quickly to avoid a sack – he's been sacked just twice this year – as opposed to buying more time in the pocket to let the play develop.
Avoiding sacks is important, but so is holding the ball to the last split second to let a receiver break open.
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer says Ainge has been ``incredible'' this year and last. I'm not so sure about that, either.
Ainge doesn't have the same receiving cast as a year ago, and he's probably grown in his ability to manage a game. But he's not throwing at an NFL accuracy level and he's not making plays when under duress.
Despite his fourth-quarter heroics against Vanderbilt, that doesn't bode well for his NFL future.
CHAVIS PRAISES LINEBACKER PLAY
In John Chavis' 13 years as Tennessee's defensive coordinator, this is the least productive unit he's put on the field.
The Vols are a field-goal away from giving up more points than any UT team and the total yards allowed is by far the worst under Chavis.
``I've had some good groups, but I wouldn't trade this group for any I've had,'' Chavis said. ``When you say that, you know you've had Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson and Eric Westmoreland who played together. This group is as fine as any I've been around.''
That's a strong statement, considering Wilson was a multiple All-Pro pick with the Denver Broncos and Thompson and Westmoreland were NFL starters.
Frankly, I don't think any of UT's starting linebackers this season would beat out the trio from 1998. Karl isn't an NFL player and I have my doubts about McCoy. Mayo can play in the NFL, but probably not at middle linebacker.
Mayo was outstanding against Vanderbilt, recording a career-high 15 tackles.
``It would be hard for me to believe anybody has played better than Jerod Mayo this year,'' Chavis said. ``Mayo's having an All-American kind of year.''
Mayo leads the team with 93 tackles. He is second with six tackles for loss and he has an interception return for a touchdown.
Thanks in large part to Mayo, Vanderbilt had just 16 yards on 16 plays in the fourth quarter.
VOLS WEREN'T MUCH BETTER THAN IN '05 LOSS
Give Tennessee credit for beating Vanderbilt, but the Vols weren't much better against the Commodores on Saturday as they were in losing to Vandy in 2005.
The Vols ran the ball better in 2005 – Arian Foster had 223 yards – and scored about the same amount of points (24).
But two years ago, the Vols didn't get a crucial roughing-the-punter penalty, a field goal that bounced off the upright and a star receiver suffering a first-half injury.
The difference in Saturday's game and the 2005 game was UT got the breaks.
If Tennessee doesn't play much better at Kentucky this Saturday, the Wildcats will end the same losing streak to the Vols that Vandy did two years ago – 22.