Instant Analysis: Tennessee-South Carolina

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 28, 2006

Just when South Carolina had overcome a cartload of stage-fright blunders to finally take a hard-earned lead, Erik Ainge--before exiting the stage--made a lasting mark on a season, a career, and the Phil Fulmer-Steve Spurrier rivalry.

The old saying about the great ones is that they're not great all the time, just great when they have to be. Ainge was half a beat off for most of the night, overthrowing receivers by small but real margins, but on the one drive when he needed to step up, Ainge summoned up his very best, and it decisively carried the Vols past the Gamecocks on a mistake-filled night in Columbia.

The scene for Ainge's dramatic drive to destiny was set up by the gallant Gamecocks' pluck and grit. Despite moving the ball consistently on John Chavis' Tennessee defense, Carolina and quarterback Syvelle Newton found a way to shoot themselves in the foot. Whether it was an ill-timed improvisational pass (intercepted by Tennessee in the end zone), a bobbled shotgun snap (on a 3rd and 5 play near the Tennessee 30), or a poor option pitch on a 4th and 1 play that had "big-gainer" written all over it (when Cory Boyd got stopped at the Vol 33), Newton managed to display a sweaty palm on the very occasions when Steve Spurrier needed him to have a steady hand. A first half filled with good drives that abruptly stalled became the Gamecocks' lost chance on Saturday night. But for all of their miscues, Carolina stayed the course and--with help from a number of Volunteer errors that similarly came in clusters--found a way to carve out a 17-14 lead on a typically brilliant play call from Spurrier that freed up receiver Noah Whiteside for an easy score. Despite enough goof-ups to fill a slapstick comedy marathon, South Carolina--late in the third quarter--held a lead over the eighth-ranked Vols. Williams-Brice Stadium was a nuthouse, and suddenly, it was reasonable to think that, yes, Spurrier could haunt Fulmer yet again in this classic SEC coaching clash.

That's when Erik Ainge decided he had had enough.

Precisely when the Carolina croud cranked up the volume, Ainge cranked up the Vols. With the poise that has sometimes deserted him in his Tennessee career, Ainge coolly threw one stick-moving strike after another. He was nails on an ice-veins 3rd and 15 conversion to Jayson Swain, and he followed that play--the biggest of the night--with a go-ahead 12-yard touchdown strike to Bret Smith. Precisely when the Gamecocks could have cemented their advantage with a stop, Erik Ainge had other ideas. His ability to rally his mates in their one hour of peril enabled the Vols to surmount the challenge from the Roosters. Chavis' Big Orange defense--when given back the lead at 21-17--put the clamps down in ways Tyrone Nix's defenders couldn't, and after a punt return and subsequent Tennessee touchdown, the game had been defined for all the world to see. The outcome--likely but not guaranteed throughout the rest of the proceedings--finally became official when a last-ditch Carolina drive peetered out in the dying seconds.

For so much of this game, both Fulmer and Spurrier--along with their staffs--put their players in position to succeed, only to see them fail. But after Syvelle Newton finally cleaned up his act to put the home team in front, Erik Ainge made his authoritative answer, and the force of that go-ahead touchdown drive will be felt in ways that Phil Fulmer will fondly remember. Ainge might not be 100 percent for a steel cage match against LSU next weekend, but however the rest of the season plays out in Knoxville, Tennessee's head coach will rightly take pride in the fact that his signal caller displayed tremendous poise and maturity in the very situation when a young footballer has his manhood tested.

Related Stories
Quarterly Report
 -by  Oct 28, 2006
Halftime: USC Battles Back to Make it Close
 -by  Oct 28, 2006
UT wins with big finish
 -by  Oct 28, 2006

Add Topics to My HotList
Get free email alerts with news about your favorite topics. Click link to add to My HotList.
Football > South Carolina
Football > Tennessee
[View My HotList]