Wardlow saves the day

An unlikely hero brought an unlikely end to an unlikely season today in the Outback Bowl at Tampa.

Sophomore safety Antonio Wardlow had just 9 tackles, zero interceptions and zero pass breakups to show for Tennessee's 13 previous games of 2007. With the bowl outcome hanging in the balance, however, he stepped in front of 6-foot-5 Kyle Jefferson to make a game-saving interception that sealed the Vols' 21-17 defeat of Wisconsin.

"With a 6-foot-5 wide receiver on my side, I knew they were going to try something deep – a post corner or something like that," Wardlow said on the post-game show. "I knew once the ball was thrown that I had to go get it at its highest point."

He did just that, staggered into the end zone, then returned the ball 18 yards before hitting the deck.

"I knew the game was pretty much over," he said, "so I just slid."

Tennessee, 4-3 and seemingly a program in disarray after a humiliating 41-17 loss at Alabama in October, won six of its last seven games to finish 10-4. The Vols' only loss over the season's final two months was in the SEC Championship Game with LSU, which plays for the national title on Monday night.

Outback Bowl MVP Erik Ainge completed 25 of 43 passes for 365 yards, despite getting very little help from his ground game. Tennessee managed just 66 yards on 29 rushing attempts. Josh Briscoe was Ainge's favorite target, catching seven balls for 101 yards. Freshman Denarius Moore added 86 receiving yards on just four grabs.

The Vols did a good job containing Badger QB Tyler Donovan, who completed just 14 of 25 passes for 155 yards. They really shut down superstar tight end Travis Beckum, limiting the 6-4, 225-pounder to two grabs for 22 yards. UT defenders had considerably less success containing P.J. Hill. The 5-11, 230-pounder shredded the Vol defense for 132 yards on just 16 carries. The rest of Wisconsin's backs got just 60 yards on 25 combined attempts.

The Vols dominated the Outback Bowl's first half, scoring touchdowns on three of their seven possessions. They might've had a fourth except for a botched handoff on a "fumble-rooskie" play at the Wisconsin 15-yard line.

The first TD came out of the "G-Gun" package, with Gerald Jones taking a shotgun snap, breaking a tackle and squirting three yards to cap a seven-play, 66-yard drive.

Wisconsin pulled even at 7-all with a 78-yard drive, quarterback Tyler Donovan getting the TD on a six-yard scramble.

Tennessee went up 14-7 with a three-play, 59-yard drive, capped by a 29-yard TD strike from Erik Ainge to Josh Briscoe, then increased the gap to 21-7 by going 51 yards in four plays. This time the score came on a 31-yard strike from Ainge to tight end Brad Cottam.

Wisconsin scored just before halftime on a four-yard pass from Donovan to tight end Andy Crooks, whittling the lead to 21-14 at the break.

Based on the first half, the game appeared likely to be a 42-38 shootout. Both defenses stiffened in the second half, however, and both offenses helped out by stopping themselves.

Wisconsin closed to 21-17 on a 27-yard Taylor Mehlhaff field goal with just seven seconds left in the third quarter. Tennessee's attempt to answer was aborted when Daniel Lincoln's 28-yarder was blocked by Elijah Hodge.

Wisconsin drove to the Vol 10-yard line moments later but a fourth-and-two pass fell incomplete.

"The fourth-down stop was probably the play of the game," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show. "There were so many big plays but there weren't any bigger than the fourth-down stop."

Tennessee advanced to the Badger 40-yard line, then stalled and punted the ball away, giving Wisconsin the ball with 1:26 left and a four-point deficit to try and overcome.

The Badgers swiftly moved to the Vol 36-yard line but Wardlow made his leaping interception and 18-yard return to seal the deal.

"Our defense the entire second half just did a fantastic job, holding them to three points," Fulmer said.

Whether the positive energy generated by this win carries over into the season to come or not, the Vol boss was happy to end the '07 season on an upbeat note.

"This was a great way to start the new year," he said, "and a fantastic way to finish up a challenging, tough year."

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