- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It took less than three quarters for Tennessee to restore its reputation as a powerhouse program.

The 23rd-ranked Volunteers buried the memory of last season’s humiliating 5-6 campaign under a hail of big orange heroics last night at Neyland Stadium, authoring a 35-18 rout of No. 9 California in front of a 106,009 ecstatic fans.

“It’s been a tough offseason and a tough summer, but tonight we played Tennessee football,” Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said.

Both Fulmer and Tennessee junior quarterback Erik Ainge endured a storm of criticism after last season, when a UT team ranked No. 3 in the opening Associated Press poll stumbled to the school’s first losing record since 1988 behind a slumping Ainge and a lifeless offense.

His popularity waning, Fulmer turned to an old friend and confidant for assistance, replacing maligned offensive coordinator Randy Sanders with David Cutcliffe. The noted quarterback guru mentored three consecutive players to All-American status at the position in past years as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee (Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning) and the head man at Mississippi (Eli Manning).

And in just one offseason, Cutcliffe obviously has influenced with Ainge.

“If Coach Cutcliffe told me to play without a helmet, I would. That’s how much I respect the man and his abilities,” said Ainge, who completed 11 of 17 for 291 yards and four touchdowns — both career highs. “We all bought into what he had to say this offseason, and we were just as crisp out there on offense today as we could be.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Ainge, who was given to making panicky poor decisions last season, looked like a different player in the pocket last night. After throwing just five touchdown passes all of last season while splitting time with Rick Clausen, Ainge nearly matched that total last night against a Cal squad that returned seven starters on a unit that led the Pac-10 in scoring defense last season.

“I think we felt disrespected after being talked bad about all during the summer, and that was to be expected when you go 5-6 at a place like the University of Tennessee,” Ainge said. “This game was about more than just Tennessee football. This was the South vs. the West Coast, the SEC vs. the Pac-10.”

If that’s true, last night’s pasting doesn’t say much about the nation’s powder puff conference, a league that of late has featured precious little in the elite department outside of leviathan USC. Last night’s result was a serious setback for a highly ranked Cal team looking to make a major road statement and stake a claim to upper echelon status under fifth-year head coach Jeff Tedford.

After a 12-yard, first-quarter toss from Ainge to junior tight end Chris Brown gave the Vols a 7-0 lead, Tennessee erupted for four more big-play scores in a less than 10 minutes surrounding halftime to turn an early defensive struggle into a 35-0 laugher with 8:30 left in the third quarter.

Ainge and junior receiver Robert Meachem authored the first pair of those four scores, twice torching Cal freshman cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson. On scoring strikes of 43 and 80 yards to Meachem bookending halftime, Thompson gambled and lost attempting to jump the first route and then missed a one-on-one tackle on the second, turning two simple hitch routes in the flat into momentum-establishing scores.

“As wide receivers, we had a chip on our shoulder,” said Meachem, who finished with a career-high 182 yards receiving and two touchdowns on five receptions. “No. 13 [Cal cornerback Daymeion Hughes] had a lot to say about us last week, and we took that to heart. That’s like someone talking about your mama or stepping on your shoes in the club. We wanted to go out and show the world that we’re back. We did, and we’re are. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re going to get there.”

After Meachem began the big-play parade, fellow receiver Jayson Swain and backup tailback Montario Hardesty finished it. Ainge found the former for a 50-yard score on a seam route to put the Vols ahead 28-0 with 10:24 left in the third quarter. And then on Tennessee’s next play from scrimmage, Hardesty dragged half the Cal defense 43 yards down the right sidelines to put the Vols up 35-0 and cap an offensive explosion in which Tennessee scored three touchdowns on six third-quarter snaps.

“I think David Cutcliffe has energized our offense, and I’m tremendously pleased that David has meshed so well with John Chavis,” Fulmer said, tipping his cap as well to the defensive coordinator who held former Cal Heisman candidate Marshawn Lynch to 48 yards on nine carries before the Bears scored 18 meaningless points in mop-up time. “The guys were ready to play. We’ve been waiting for this. We expected to win this game and return to being Tennessee.”

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