Vols validate season with 10th win

TAMPA – As the Tennessee team made a celebratory march down the tunnel toward the dressing room, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe gave quarterback Erik Ainge a hug bear hug.

It was a special embrace – their last as members of the Tennessee family.

Cutcliffe is going to Duke.

Ainge is going out a winner. Ainge completed 25 of 43 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors as 16tg-ranked Tennessee atoned for last season's Outback Bowl loss with a 21-17 victory over No. 18 Wisconsin.

``Erik Ainge had a career day,'' said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

As Cutcliffe grasped a tear-eyed Ainge, the coach said to the pupil: ``Nineteen wins in the last two years.''

Indeed, 19 wins in two years looks a lot better than 18 wins – just as 10 wins in a season looks a lot better than nine. For details, see 2006.

Tennessee's loss to Penn State aggravated Vol fans. Beating Wisconsin isn't cause for a parade, but it beats the alternative for Tennessee. And it beats the alternative for Ainge, who was down in the dumps after throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions against LSU in the Georgia Dome, costing the Vols a chance to not only win the SEC but play in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since the 1990 season.

As bad as Ainge was in the final 15 minutes against LSU, he was about that good down the stretch in the Outback Bowl. On one drive, he converted third-and-16, third-and-8 and fourth-and-3. On another, he converted third-and-6 and third-and-4.

``That said a lot about Ainge in the clutch,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We all know what we came off of (the LSU loss). I was real proud of the way he responded. He stepped up at critical times for us.''

One key play was a 25-yard pass to Josh Briscoe, who had seven catches for 101 yards filling in for the academically ineligible Lucas Taylor. But Briscoe, who revealed he suffered a broken hand against LSU, fumbled near the sideline. Wisconsin recovered at the Badger 40 with 3:19 left. Visions of Arian Foster's fatal fumble against Penn State were dancing through some UT heads.

Officials gave the ball to Wisconsin. A lengthy review gave it back to Tennessee as Jay Valai had a foot out of bounds as he gained possession.

Fulmer was convinced replay would be on UT's side.

``Unless they really steal it,'' Fulmer said, ``we're going to get the ball back.''

Fulmer said he was going to challenge the replay if it didn't go his way, even though he didn't have a challenge.

Cutcliffe was ready to do more than that. He said it was evident Wisconsin recovered the ball out of bounds.

``I just kept telling Phillip,'Don't let them screw it up,''' Cutcliffe said. ``I don't know what was taking so long. I was getting ready to see my fastest path down to the field if they got that one wrong. It was 100 percent an easy call.''

It didn't allow UT to run out the clock. But it allowed the Vols to burn off another 1:53 and back Wisconsin up to its 12-yard line with 1:26 remaining.

The Badgers moved to the UT 36, but seldom used safety Antonio Wardlow, who wouldn't have even been in the game if Ricardo Kemp hadn't been academically ineligible, intercepted at the goal line to seal the deal.

``Ball game,'' was the reaction of defensive end Robert Ayers, who had one of Tennessee's three sacks.

``I went up to him and about tackled him'' linebacker Ryan Karl said.

``He played thirds the way he was supposed to,'' said defensive coordinator John Chavis. ``He did a tremendous job.''

So did Tennessee's defense. Put on life support after being hammered by Florida and Alabama, Chavis' unit rebounded to finish decently down the stretch, playing solid against Arkansas and LSU and Wisconsin.

The Badgers managed 347 yards – 192 on the ground – but scored just three points in the second half. The Vols also limited All-American tight end Travis Beckum to two catches for 22 yards, none until the final seven minutes.

``Coach Chavis came up with a defensive scheme to shut down their offense,'' said Karl, who played a lot more snaps than anyone anticipated after suffering a chipped bone in his elbow against LSU.

``It's great to be a part of a defensive scheme that puts you in position like he does and forces other teams to get out of their element.''

Chavis said UT was aware of where Beckum was on each snap and knew the routes he would run based on Wisconsin's formations.

``We were determined not to let him beat us and (determined) not to let them beat us running the football,'' Chavis said.

Wisconsin had moments of success on the ground, but on several short-yardage plays – including a fourth-and-2 at the UT 9 trailing by four with 6:45 left – the Badgers threw the ball rather than go to the power run game.

It worked in UT's favor.

``We felt like we had a good short-yardage package,'' Chavis said. ``We were trying to overload the box big-time to keep them from running the football.''

Linebacker Jerod Mayo led the defense with 13 tackles. Tackle J.T. Mapu and linebacker Ellix Wilson – starting for ineligible players – fared well, Chavis said.

It all added up to a 10-win season for Tennessee and helped validate the SEC East Division Championship.

``It's good to get 10 wins, but we've got to make another push,'' Chavis said. ``We need to and want to win championships. That's what it's all about.

``We had a chance. We played for it. We didn't get it done in the fourth quarter (against LSU). Now we've got to grow to the next level.''

Winning the Outback Bowl isn't a bad way to start.

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