Ainge looks to bounce back

Everyone hopes to go out in a blaze of glory, but it rarely works out that way.

Take Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, for instance. He battled through a fractured finger and a sore shoulder to guide the Vols to the 2007 SEC Championship Game. His dream was to spark an upset of LSU that would earn UT its first SEC title in nine years and a bid to the Sugar Bowl.

That dream would not be fulfilled, however. Instead, he threw two fourth-quarter interceptions – one returned for the go-ahead touchdown and the other sealing the outcome – in a 21-14 loss to the Tigers.

The phrase "bitter disappointment" doesn't begin to capture his feelings.

"It's tough to deal with," he said recently. "Any time you invest that much time into it and things don't turn out the way you want them to, it's obviously difficult."

The 6-6, 220-pound senior is no stranger to adversity, however. After a spectacular freshman year, he endured the mother of all sophomore jinxes, losing the first-team QB job to Rick Clausen twice during a tumultuous 2005 season that produced a 5-6 record.

Ainge bounced back from the difficulties of 2005, though, and he is convinced he will bounce back from his ill-fated finish vs. LSU, as well.

"I can put things into perspective pretty well," he said. "I just told myself, ‘At least I've got one more game.' If that had been the last game I got to play as a Volunteer that would've been difficult. I have the attitude ‘Well, we've got another game. I've got to go out and accomplish some good things.'"

Although his final regular-season performance was very discouraging, the support of his teammates was very encouraging. Many of his fellow Vols have rallied around him in a big way.

"It makes you feel good," he said. "I would do the same for them. We'd do the same for the coaches. We all do that for each other."

Although Ainge hopes to play well in Tennessee's upcoming Outback Bowl meeting with Wisconsin, he does not view the game as an opportunity to redeem himself for the poor outing vs. LSU. Nor does he view the Wisconsin game as an opportunity for tailback Arian Foster to redeem himself for a costly fumble he lost in the fourth quarter of last year's Outback Bowl loss to Penn State.

"People talk about Arian fumbling in last year's game and this being a chance for him to redeem himself," Ainge said. "I've had that question a bunch. None of us even think about that until someone asks the question. It's really not that big of a deal for us."

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe figured Ainge would take the SEC Championship Game loss to LSU hard, and he was right.

"He felt like I did ... really bad," Cutcliffe recalled. "I told him 'That's pretty normal. You're supposed to feel bad. It hurts.' Sometimes we all get too much credit in this sport and business. Sometimes that's good – most times it's good – but sometimes it's not good."

Some observers suggest that Ainge's poor finish vs. LSU damaged his legacy. The Vols' head coach vehemently disagrees.

"To say that was Erik's legacy; that's not the case," Phillip Fulmer said. "Erik has done extremely well for us. We wouldn't have been in the championship game in '04 if it hadn't been for Erik. He had a fantastic junior year, a fantastic senior year. I don't think you define his legacy by a throw at the end of a ball game at all."

Immediately after the LSU game Ainge tried to shoulder all of the blame for the loss. His teammates wouldn't let him. Nor would his coach.

"He tried to take all the blame," Fulmer said, "but there was nearly 140 plays in that ball game, and any of them could've made a difference in the ball game."

As disappointing as the loss to LSU was, Ainge can still end his college career on a positive note by refocusing and guiding Tennessee to an Outback Bowl victory. Cutcliffe watched the senior QB closely in the Vols' first pre-bowl workout to see if Ainge appeared ready to go out with a bang or a whimper. The coordinator liked what he saw.

"He was great," Cutcliffe recalled. "He got energized. I asked him to do some study of Wisconsin. He did and got energized. You could see a different Erik Ainge."

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