With the Volunteers in full control of the SEC Championship game against LSU and in position to claim a BCS bid, Ainge, maintaining the UT offense's aggressiveness, tried to force a ball into heavy coverage. The result was LSU's Jonathan Zenon intercepting Ainge deep in Tennessee territory and returning the pick for the go-ahead score.
Ainge had a chance for redemption after driving into the Tigers' red zone, but Ainge was again foiled by the Tiger defense and Darry Beckwith, as Ainge's second interception of the quarter sealed the fate of the Volunteers.
"Until the fourth quarter when I threw that pick, we got real aggressive," Ainge said. "Instead of let LSU take it to us, we went out there, spread them out, threw the ball down the field and started attacking them with aggressive routes. We got in that mode and got a little over aggressive and it cost us. "
It was an unfair finish to a great season for Ainge, who will have his chance to redeem himself in Tuesday's Outback Bowl against Wisconsin.
Completing 63 percent of his passes for over 3,100 yards, Ainge had 29 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions and has shown a tremendous amount of resolve over his junior and senior seasons.
Bouncing back from a challenging sophomore season, Ainge now sits third all-time among UT quarterbacks with 8,335 passing yards and 8,106 total offensive yards.
"Eric has had an exceptional career," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He put the whole package together as a freshman and won the division and played in the SEC Championship game. He struggled as a sophomore, but put together a really outstanding junior and senior year. We would not be where we are without Eric and he wants to finish on a very positive note."
Ainge's success has been due to his consistency throwing the football, ranked second in the Southeastern Conference with 23.1 completions per game. With Ainge having an outstanding receiver unit and running back Arian Foster being a steady receiver in his own right, Tennessee finished the season with five players hauling in 35 catches or more.
Not only did Ainge surpass the 3,000-yard barrier during his senior season, but he revealed that he did it while hampered throughout most of the season after suffering a nagging shoulder injury in the season-opener against California – an injury that required multiple non-throwing days and painkillers.
"I am very impressed with what he's been able to do," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "He's very accurate and you can tell that he has a great relationship with the offense. He knows and understands where things are supposed to go, especially if the defense does certain things. He's a very gifted quarterback who has a lot of control on the field."
While the pain of not making a BCS game still lingers with Ainge, the senior quarterback can look past the fourth-quarter miscues because he still has more college football to play. Looking to finish in Knoxville with Tennessee's first bowl victory since 2005, Ainge is ready to punctuate his career.
"I am not a guy that dwells on things," Ainge said. "I would obviously like to have those two throws back, but there are a lot of throws that I would like to have back in my life. I can put things in perspective pretty well and that I have another opportunity to play football in college. It would be a lot worse if that was the last game I would have to play."