|Ainge leaves behind big cleats to fill in Knoxville |
| Ainge ya gonna miss him |
Tennessee senior quarterback Erik Ainge has finished his football career in Knoxville as the No. 3 all-time passer in Volunteer history. The stylish final chapter, which he wrote in the Outback Bowl, included 365 yards of passing offense and two touchdown strikes.
Some Big Orange fans believe that this 6-6 slinger from the great Northwest will not be missed next season; buddy-bubba we would suggest you better think again.
Let’s dissect this season and go back to the beginning of the “awesome” championship run that was launched by Fulmer and company following the embarrassing beat down at the hands of an Alabama team that eventually finished the season with a 7-6 record. We will start with that stirring victory over South Carolina on Oct. 27 and conclude the numbers with the win over Wisconsin in Tampa. These figures will include the 59-7 shellacking of Louisiana-Lafayette during homecoming festivities on Nov. 3.
In the seven games from Oct. 27 through Jan. 1, 2008, Tennessee’s defense yielded 2,800 yards to the opponents while the Volunteer offense gained 2,686 total yards. Of that number, Erik Ainge’s right arm, with a reported injured shoulder and a broken pinky finger, still accounted for 1,793 of those yards, or almost 66 percent.
During that span of football games, Tennessee’s offense reached paydirt 26 times and Ainge was responsible for 18 of those six-pointers through the air.
Even in the defeat at the hands of LSU — a loss some teammates and Vol fans tried to hang on him — had it not been for Ainge, this game could have been a Tiger blowout. Ainge threw for 249 of Tennessee’s total of 324 total yards. He also tossed two touchdown passes against an LSU defense that was, at one time this season, statistically ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Every week during the struggle to the SEC championship game, except for the homecoming laugher, it certainly appeared to require that Ainge bring the Big Orange back from the brink of disaster. The Tennessee defense couldn’t seem to get off the field. During the games we are reviewing, UT opponents possessed the football for a total of 232 minutes and 36 seconds against Chavis’ defense. That left Ainge and company exactly 188 minutes and 24 seconds to win football games. What this means is that Ainge averaged about one touchdown pass for every 10 minutes of time of possession from Oct. 27 through Jan. 1.
In the classic shootout in Lexington, Ky., that propelled Tennessee into the title contest against LSU, Ainge was at his artistic best. In a four-overtime test of nerves and pure guts against a Kentucky team that was looking to break up the nation’s longest losing streak to one school, Ainge zipped seven touchdown passes to Volunteer receivers. He missed throwing for 400 yards by just three.
On Tennessee’s final possession, Ainge hit the bullseye on a 40-yard strike to Quinton Hancock for the sudden six and then pin-pointed Austin Rogers for the two-point conversion that spelled the eventual end of the Wildcat hopes for the upset.
Ainge understands the quarterback position. His mentor, David Cutcliffe, demanded discipline and attention to detail from his student and Ainge learned his lessons well. Did he make some mistakes this season? Yes he did, but they were few and far between. Sometimes Cutcliffe called the wrong play, and at other times, a great defensive performer stepped up and made an outstanding play for an opponent.
It must be noted here that there may never, ever be another football season when the Tennessee quarterback will be sacked only four times over the course of the entire schedule. Of course, the short timing passes account for much of that success, but the clock in the head of Ainge and his ability to sense when to throw the ball away also factor greatly into that phenomenally low number.
The next level
Some skeptical critics of Ainge don’t believe he has what it takes to succeed in the National Football League. This writer would have to take exception to that train of thought. Ainge has the size, the arm, the quick release and the smarts to make it in professional football. If he is drafted by the right organization — a coach and a team that will position him behind a veteran quarterback with a few years still left in his career — then Ainge will have time to develop and learn without the pressure of immediate expectations. He is still, to a certain degree, a work in progress. In the right environment and situation, he should have the chance, at some point in the future, to seize the opportunity to prove those who doubt him were very wrong.
And a final word again to those who think Ainge can easily be replaced in 2008. Sometimes you don’t really miss the water till the well runs dry!