KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry gambled
against No. 11 Tennessee and ended up with one of the biggest
disappointments of his long career.
The Falcons (0-1) frustrated the Volunteers' defense with their
tricky triple-option offense and staged a comeback in the final
minutes to pull to within one on a touchdown with 1:35 remaining.
DeBerry chose to go for the lead instead of a tie. Tennessee's
Xavier Mitchell stuffed the late 2-point conversion try and
preserved the 31-30 victory Saturday.
"I think they came in here to win the game," Tennessee coach
Phillip Fulmer said. "It was their call. If they made it, they
would have been heroes."
The Volunteers (2-0), coming off last week's stunning win over
California, got another stellar performance from Erik Ainge and the
offense, but it almost wasn't enough.
Now Tennessee can focus all of its attention on Florida, which
comes to Rocky Top next week for the teams' annual SEC East
Ainge completed 24 of 29 passes for 333 yards with one
interception. Robert Meachem caught touchdown passes of 4 and 5
yards, and Jayson Swain hauled in another for 5 yards from Ainge.
Air Force cut it to 31-24 with 2:41 left and then recovered the
onside kick at its own 42. The Falcons scored on Ryan Williams'
1-yard run to cut the lead to a point with 1:35 remaining.
On the 2-point try, Chad Hall took the pitch from quarterback
Shaun Carney and was stopped for a loss by Mitchell.
The relieved orange-clad fans in Neyland Stadium cheered for a
win that was very different from a week ago.
DeBerry said he decided to go for two before the final touchdown
because "we didn't come here to tie."
"It's probably the most disappointing game I've ever been
involved in," he said. "It's a game that I felt we should have
won, a game we could have won."
And it would have been huge for the Falcons coming off
back-to-back losing records for the first time under DeBerry, who
is in his 23rd season. Air Force's last win over a ranked team came
in 2002 when the Falcons beat then-No. 23 California 23-21.
The Falcons had another opportunity to get the ball back after
the failed conversion. They recovered another onside kick, but the
officials nullified it with an offside penalty. Air Force had to
kick again, and Tennessee recovered it and ran out the clock.
DeBerry said he didn't want to comment on the penalty until
after he saw the tape.
"We're elated to get a win and get out of that thing and get
ready for the next one," Fulmer said.
Play was stopped for several minutes late in the fourth quarter
after Tennessee's Inky Johnson was carted off the field and taken
away in an ambulance. He apparently hit helmets with Air Force's
Justin Handley after a catch.
Fulmer said Johnson was temporarily unconscious but was able to
move his arms and legs. Johnson was taken to University of
Tennessee Medical Center.
The Vols lost starting defensive tackle Justin Harrell with an
unspecified arm injury, and starting tailback Arian Foster left the
game in the first half with a sprained left ankle.
Montario Hardesty relieved him and scored from 3 yards out to
cap a 99-yard drive to open the second half. Hardesty finished with
72 yards on 19 carries.
"We've got a lot of heart on this football team. You know we
didn't get it the way we wanted it," Ainge said.
"We knew going into that game that their offense was going to
be able to move the football. ... We've never faced anything like
Air Force led 10-3 early, but Meachem's touchdown catch in the
second quarter tied it at 10. The Vols went ahead for good on
Ainge's TD pass to Swain in a hurry-up offense with 28 seconds to
go in the first half.
The triple option is rarely seen in college football these days,
and it fooled the Vols often.
"I'm standing on the sidelines, and I couldn't tell who had the
ball," Fulmer said.
Williams led the Falcons in rushing with 98 yards on 16 carries.
The Vols were hoping to put the game away in the fourth quarter
when Ainge's pass was intercepted at the Air Force 10 by Julian
The mistake set up Williams' 4-yard run that started Air Force's
comeback with 2:41 remaining and made it 31-24.
Carney had 52 yards rushing with a 1-yard touchdown that was
challenged by Fulmer but upheld by the officials.
Hall rushed 11 times for 81 yards, and scored from 5 yards out
in the first quarter.
Top 25 Overview
It was over when... Tennessee's Xavier Mitchell stopped Air Force's Chad Hall on a two-point conversion to preserve the 31-30 win.
Gameball goes to... Erik Ainge. The Vols QB was a blistering 24 of 29 for 334 yards and 3 TDs.
Stat of the game... 18-24: The two teams combined for an impressive third-down conversion rate (AFA: 9-13; UT: 9-11)