Tennessee celebrated a stunning comeback victory over SEC archrival Florida last week. The Vols wouldn’t mind a little less drama Saturday night when they host Louisiana Tech.
The No. 11 Vols (2-0) look to remain unbeaten when they face the Bulldogs for only the second time.
Sophomore James Wilhoit sent a Neyland Stadium-record crowd of 109,061 into a frenzy last Saturday night, kicking a 50-yard field goal with 6 seconds to go to lift Tennessee to a 30-28 victory over Florida. Wilhoit redeemed himself after missing the first extra-point kick of his career less than four minutes earlier that would have tied the game.
“I was asked when I was being recruited here if I had a chance to win the game if I’d want it to be at home or away. Would it be in The Swamp?” Wilhoit said of having a chance to beat the Gators. “And I said, ‘No way.’ I’d rather it be at home so we could rush the field.”
Freshman Erik Ainge completed passes of 21 and 7 yards to Chris Hannon to set up the field goal. After Wilhoit kicked it straight down the middle, the Tennessee bench erupted with players and coaches streaming onto the field, celebrating Tennessee’s first win over Florida at Knoxville since 1998.
“This was certainly a character fight, but the team’s attitude is just so good,” said Vols coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team jumped two spots in the AP Top 25 with the victory over then-No. 11 Florida. “I knew we could come through it with a win.”
Ainge made that possible, completing 16 of 24 passes for 192 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He took over late in the third quarter for freshman Brent Schaeffer, who was 3-of-4 for 40 yards and ran seven times for 38 yards. Ainge directed a scoring drive that tied it at 21, and played the rest of the way.
Fulmer gave no indication this week that the quarterback rotation he has used through two games would end against Louisiana Tech.
“I thought both of them had key plays in the game. Erik’s heroics in the second half were extremely good for a freshman quarterback, but Brent also made some plays in the first half that allowed us to change the field position and do some good things,” Fulmer said.
All is not well for Tennessee going into this game, as top linebacker Kevin Simon tore a knee ligament against Florida and will miss the rest of season. Fulmer compared the loss of Simon, the Vols’ leading tackler last year, to the loss of tailback Jamal Lewis in 1998.
“But in the case of Jamal, other people stepped up and played really well for us,” Fulmer said Tuesday. “That needs to be the case this time. I think it will be.”
Simon’s absence could hurt against Louisiana Tech (2-1) and Ryan Moats, the nation’s leading rusher who gained 257 yards in each of his first two games. Moats, however, was held to 81 yards on 14 carries and fumbled once in the Bulldogs’ 48-0 pounding at the hands of No. 4 Miami last week.
“They’re great. They always have a great defense,” Moats said. “They have good speed, good size, that’s Miami for you. I love playing against that defense.”
Moats might not enjoy facing tough defenses so much a month from now. The rout opened a brutal stretch of four straight games against ranked opponents for Louisiana Tech, with matchups against No. 17 Fresno State and No. 9 Auburn to follow Saturday’s game against the Vols.
Louisiana Tech and Tennessee first met in 1993, a 50-0 Vols victory at Neyland in their season opener. Tennessee is 14-1 against teams that currently make up the Western Athletic Conference.