5:30 PM ET, September 2, 2006
Neyland Stadium, KNOXVILLE, TN
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Relief replaced misery on Rocky Top.
Nine months ago, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was grim as he answered questions about a 5-6 finish, his first losing season and a bowl-less holiday for his Volunteers.
He may have been one of the most relieved -- but least surprised -- among the 106,009 people in Neyland Stadium who watched the 23rd-ranked Vols' 35-18 win over No. 9 California on Saturday.
"We expected to win this ball game and be Tennessee," Fulmer said.
Erik Ainge threw four passes for touchdowns, showing big improvement from a year ago. Robert Meachem caught two of the touchdowns, including an 80-yarder at the start of the third quarter that created a frenzy among the orange-clad fans.
"We've never seen anything like that. That's a pretty impressive atmosphere, there's no doubt about it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "The environment they create gives Tennessee a real home field advantage."
For at least a week, Fulmer will be spared from speculation about how many games he needs to win to keep his job. Fulmer described last year as an aberration, and the Vols might have proved him right.
Tennessee had been 0-6 against top 10 teams in Neyland Stadium since 2000, and many fans stayed to the end. After all, their last glimpse of the 2005 Vols was in an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt.
"We all felt disrespected," Ainge said. "This game tonight wasn't just for Tennessee versus California. It was for the South versus the West Coast, the SEC versus the Pac-10."
For the Golden Bears, it was a shocking blow at the beginning of a greatly anticipated season. Cal's ranking was its highest since 1952.
Many believe this could be the Bears' year to challenge Southern California for the Pac-10 title, and they still could with this loss outside conference play. But any run at a national championship was likely dashed.
"We just weren't very sharp. We didn't execute. We didn't catch it very well. We didn't tackle well," Tedford said.
Tedford brought in new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar from Northwestern to add the spread offense, but the Bears could do little against the speedy Tennessee defense, which had to replace six of its seven starters up front.
Sophomore Nate Longshore was making his first start at quarterback on the road after missing nearly all of last season with an injury. Joe Ayoob, who replaced Longshore last year, relieved him in the third quarter and made the score more respectable with a 40-yard TD pass to DeSean Jackson and a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Marshawn Lynch, who the Bears are pushing for the Heisman Trophy, had 35 yards on five carries at halftime and finished with 74 yards on 12 carries.
After halftime, the game turned into the kind of romp the Vols were accustomed to in the 1990s with Peyton Manning under the tutelage of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who was making his return to his old job. Cutcliffe returned to Knoxville to replace Randy Sanders after he resigned last season as head of one of the worst offenses in the country.
"It felt really good. I've been on both ends of those, but I am really happy for us and happy for what he has done for our offense," Fulmer said.
Cutcliffe's main task was to rebuild Ainge after he struggled last year in a rotation with senior Rick Clausen. Ainge warmed up early with a 41-yard strike to Meachem on Tennessee's first offensive play.
Ainge finished 11-of-17 for 291 yards as his uncle, Boston Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, watched from the stands.
Ainge had plenty of protection from Cal's vaunted defensive line anchored by All-Pac-10 tackle Brandon Mebane. The Vols exposed Cal's secondary, which had three players starting for the first time after star cornerback Tim Mixon hurt his knee in the preseason.
Chris Brown caught the Vols' first TD pass, a 12-yarder from Ainge.
The Vols even got a break that led to their second touchdown.
Meachem caught a pass and turned up field toward the first-down marker, but the official called him short. Fulmer threw down his hat, and the officials in the review booth looked at it again. They determined Meachem reached the first down. Two plays later, Meachem hauled in another pass, broke a tackle and beat the defenders down the sideline to the end zone for a 42-yard TD.
"We wanted to win very very bad because we never felt like we were as bad last year as everybody said we were. We just had bad things happen to us," Fulmer said. "Now, we're all even."
Top 25 Overview
It was over when... Antwan Stewart intercepted a Nate Longshore pass, sparking a Vols' run. The ensuing TD put Tennessee up 14-0.
Gameball goes to... Erik Ainge. Four touchdowns. 11-for-18 passing. 295 total yards. Ainge single-handedly cooled coach Phil Fulmer's hot seat.
Stat of the game... 67: The Bears' highly-touted run game was held to just 67 yards. Heisman candidate Marshawn Lynch chipped in 76.
Team Stat Comparison
|3rd Down Conversions||4-16||5-11|
|4th Down Conversions||0-1||0-1|
|TD||5:15||CHRIS BROWN 12 YD PASS FROM ERIK AINGE (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 10 plays, 65 yards.
|TD||3:07||ROBERT MEACHEM 42 YD PASS FROM ERIK AINGE (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 5 plays, 56 yards.
|TD||14:22||ROBERT MEACHEM 80 YD PASS FROM ERIK AINGE (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 2 plays, 80 yards.
|TD||10:24||JAYSON SWAIN 50 YD PASS FROM ERIK AINGE (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 3 plays, 72 yards.
|TD||8:31||MONTARIO HARDESTY 43 YD RUN (JAMES WILHOIT II KICK)|
Drive info: 1 plays, 43 yards.
|FG||2:48||TOM SCHNEIDER 32 YD FG|
Drive info: 5 plays, 29 yards.
|TD||14:46||DESEAN JACKSON 40 YD PASS FROM JOSEPH AYOOB (ROBERT JORDAN 2PT PASS FROM JOSEPH AYOOB)|
Drive info: 4 plays, 77 yards.
|TD||0:09||JOSEPH AYOOB 1 YD RUN (TOM SCHNEIDER KICK)|
Drive info: 9 plays, 97 yards.