Ainge legacy won't be positive

ATLANTA – Several times during this season, senior Erik Ainge was asked about his legacy as Tennessee's quarterback.

Now we know.

Unfortunately for Erik Ainge, it won't be positive.

Right or wrong, Ainge will be remembered for throwing the game-winning interception that LSU returned for a touchdown to beat the Vols 21-14 in the SEC Championship game. He will be remembered for throwing two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter of his last regular-season game.

He will be remembered as the quarterback who didn't win the SEC championship – not the quarterback who helped Tennessee win two East Division titles or who ranks No. 3 on Tennessee's all-time passing chart.

Ainge blamed himself for throwing the ball to LSU cornerback Jonathan Zenon on a hitch route run by Quintin Hancock inside the UT 20 with 10 minutes left.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe blamed himself. Maybe he should have been more conservative with his play calling. Maybe he could have called a different pass play. Maybe this. Maybe that.

Fact is, a senior quarterback can't make that kind of mistake – not in a big game, not when a championship is on the line.

Tennessee led 14-13 at the time. The Vols' defense had held LSU – which was averaging 40 points per game – to one touchdown. The Tigers were struggling to get into the end zone behind backup quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who is mobile and athletic, but inexperienced and not to be trusted in key situations.

So, Tennessee was a confident team in the fourth quarter – a confident defense.

``I had all the confidence in the world,'' said UT linebacker Rico McCoy. ``If they don't score, they don't win. That's the attitude we had.''

But facing third-and-5 from his 14, Ainge made the most critical mistake of his career – bigger than the one he made from the LSU on a fateful Monday night. That ill-advised throw from the LSU end zone didn't cost Tennessee a conference title. It didn't even cost the Vols the game as Rick Clausen – who was at the Georgia Dome – bailed Tennessee out.

Ainge threw it right to Zenon, who returned it 18 yards to send the LSU fans into a frenzy and – ultimately – the Sugar Bowl.

``It's hard being a quarterback,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We put him in a tough situation. A quarterback gets a lot of glory and praise. Everybody knows who they are. My job is to put him in situations to make plays and I didn't do that.

``I'm really disappointed for the kids because we had a good opportunity. I didn't get it pieced together and that's my fault. I hate it because the kids deserved better. We were meant to win this football game.''

Almost.

In the first half, it certainly seemed like Tennessee was meant to win. LSU totally outplayed the Vols, outgaining UT 271-93 in total yards and holding the ball for 21:20. But Tennessee led 7-6, thanks to a John Chavis defense that held tight when LSU got inside the 20-yard line and some clock mismanagement by the Tigers late in the first half.

At the UT 11-yard line with about 38 seconds left, LSU downed the ball to stop the clock, threw a ridiculous swing pass to Jacob Hester than lost 2 yards, then spiked the ball again to set up another 30-yard field goal attempt by Colt David.

He missed, and LSU missed out on a golden opportunity to seize the lead.

LSU fans booed the team as it left the field, booed the coach who 2 hours earlier declared he wasn't going to Michigan, as was reported by ESPN. Les Miles was livid that ESPN reported he was going to Michigan and felt compelled to dispel the report because, as he said, ``the players looked at me like, `Coach, sounds like you're catching a plane tonight'" to Michigan.

On Friday night, Miles agreed to a three-year extension that will pay him over $3 million per year, according to sources. He had four years left after this season on his current deal. An SEC title would mean he would get paid among the top three coaches in the SEC – which would be at least $2.6 million for 2008. LSU agreed to go higher.

Miles didn't look like a $3 million coach in the first half. He didn't look like a $1.8 million coach, either.

Sure, he didn't have starting quarterback Matt Flynn (out with a shoulder injury). And he didn't have All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey for the last three quarters. But there was no excuse for some of the bizarre play calling that helped keep Tennessee in the game.

To Tennessee's credit, it hung with the much more talented Tigers. Ainge fired a touchdown pass on UT's first possession of the game and hit another with 3:09 left in the third quarter.

Tennessee could taste its first Sugar Bowl trip since the 1990 season.

Instead, the Vols are likely headed to the Outback Bowl for a second consecutive season as Ainge made two crucial fourth-quarter mistakes – the second being an interception inside the LSU 10 with 2:42 remaining.

``We fought hard and never game up,'' said receiver Josh Briscoe. ``Nobody thought we'd even be here. Nobody thought we'd beat them. … We're Tennessee. That's not going to change.''

Still, Briscoe and McCoy admitted the defeat was ``devastating.''

McCoy had Ainge's back – sort of.

``It's a team game,'' McCoy said. ``Everybody makes mistakes. He just kind of made his late. We don't blame him but other people can say what they want.

``Nobody's perfect. It was bad timing, maybe. He's been good all year. Those were his mistakes in a big game. You can't ride him.''

McCoy was asked if he was proud of a defense that allowed just one touchdown.

``I am but I'd be a lot more proud and happier if we had the win,'' McCoy said. ``It's pretty much a lost cause. We played well together, but we have nothing to show for it. It hurts.''

McCoy didn't take any consolation in making the SEC title game.

``Some people will be happy with this – at least we made it,'' McCoy said. ``We went to Atlanta and nobody thought we could.

``I don't care about that. We got to the big game and didn't win. Nobody remembers who lost. We got to the big game and didn't seize the moment. All that other stuff doesn't matter.

``We didn't win. That's the bottom line.''


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