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September 2, 2006

Tennessee offense regains some swagger

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge's faith in offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe knows no limits.

"If he told me to play without a helmet or mouthpiece or with one cleat, I'd do it," Ainge said. "Anything he tells me, I'm going to do."

Who could argue with Ainge after watching the initial results of this grand experiment?

Ainge threw four touchdown passes and went 11-of-17 for 291 yards Saturday as No. 23 Tennessee scored at nearly a point-a-minute pace in the first 2 1/2 quarters of a 35-18 victory over ninth-ranked California at Neyland Stadium.

That's the same Tennessee offense that ranked 101st in the nation in scoring last year on its way to a miserable 5-6 season. The Volunteers finished 2005 with their lowest scoring average since 1974 and lowest point total since 1964.

Same offense.

Different offensive coordinator.

Cutcliffe earned a reputation as one of the game's top offensive coordinators while holding that position at Tennessee from 1993-99. His legend only grew when Tennessee's offense suffered in his absence.

He returned to Knoxville this year and faced arguably his toughest challenge yet in trying to rebuild Ainge's psyche.

So far, so good.

Ainge already had set a career high in passing yardage by the opening minute of the third quarter. His four touchdown passes were the most by a Tennessee quarterback since Casey Clausen threw five against Mississippi State three years ago.

He benefited from an offensive line that didn't allow a sack and from a speedy receiving corps that turned short completions into long gains.

"I can't say enough about how hard these kids have worked," Cutcliffe said. "That kind of commitment that started in January, it does make a difference."

Although Tennessee's linemen and receivers also showed plenty of improvement, the difference was particularly apparent at quarterback.

Ainge had followed up a promising freshman season by suffering the ultimate sophomore jinx.

First he lost his touch.

Then he lost his job.

Eventually he lost his confidence.

Ainge completed just 45.5 percent of his passes while splitting time with Rick Clausen as the Vols endured their first losing season since 1988. He threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and completed at least half his passes only once all year, in the season finale against Kentucky.

"I think we felt disrespected and talked-bad-about since last season," Ainge said. "We'd expect nothing else after going 5-6 at the University of Tennessee. As good as we are and can be, we felt disrespected."

Ainge wasn't the only one feeling a lack of respect.

Tennessee wide receiver Robert Meachem said the entire receiving corps found motivation from the perceived slights of California cornerback Daymeion Hughes.

"It was like talking about your mama or stepping on your shoe at the club," Meachem said. "It was rough on us."

They made it rough on California's secondary Saturday.

Ainge threw a 42-yard completion to Meachem on the Vols' first play from scrimmage. Meachem added a 42-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, then turned a 5-yard pass into an 80-yard score in the opening minute of the third period.

Meachem finished the game with five catches for 182 yards. Jayson Swain added two catches for 65 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown.

At one point, Ainge threw three touchdown passes in a span of six offensive plays.

"More than anything," Ainge said, "we were due."

Hughes admitted the junior quarterback looked nothing like the guy who appeared so skittish last year.

"He didn't make a lot of mistakes tonight," Hughes said. "We thought he was more of a gunslinger type and he was going to throw the ball up and try to toss it all around the field. We didn't see much of that."

The Volunteers didn't act nervous on offense because they'd gotten all that out of their system.

Cutcliffe's high-demand practices made the game seem comparatively relaxing.

"They killed us at practice, but as the game comes along, it gets fun out there," Meachem said. "Today, we just had fun."

It's been a long time since any Tennessee offensive player could say that.

For more coverage of the Tennessee Volunteers, check out VolQuest.com and for more coverage of the California Golden Bears, check out BearTerritory.net.

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