STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—After the game, Erik Ainge’s uniform was still sparkling white—and it wasn’t because he spent a lot of time on the sideline.
Protected perfectly by his offensive line, Ainge threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns Saturday to lead No. 25 Tennessee to a 33-21 victory over a pesky Mississippi State.
He helped Tennessee to its third straight win and the fourth in its last five games by keeping the offense moving forward until the Bulldogs began to wilt.
“The best way to beat a guy like Ainge is to make him sit over there and drink Coke,” Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. “That’s the way you’ve got to beat that guy. When you play a team with a senior quarterback in this conference, you’ve got to keep him on the sideline.”
Ainge moved into third place on the Volunteers’ career total yards list as he found Lucas Taylor repeatedly when the Volunteers needed big plays.
The biggest came on a 51-yard rally-starting touchdown in the second quarter that tied the game 14-14. Taylor finished with career highs of 11 catches for 186 yards.
Ainge gave away an interception in the second half, but otherwise patiently kept the Volunteers (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) on the field against a Bulldogs (4-3, 1-3) defense that held early but was worn down by an offensive line among the best in the SEC.
Ainge passed Andy Kelly in the record book, and trails only Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen with 6,519 yards.
“I wasn’t perfect, but it was plenty good enough for a win,” Ainge said.
When Ainge did falter, he had plenty of help as the Volunteers forced their way back into the SEC East race.
Daniel Lincoln made four field goals, including three in the second half that clinched the win.
Arian Foster also helped put Mississippi State away when he scored on a 1-yard run after a personal foul penalty in the third quarter at the goal line that kept a drive alive. He finished with 139 yards rushing and has rushed for 294 yards and five touchdowns during Tennessee’s winning streak.
“It was like a heavyweight fight out there,” said Tennessee center Josh McNeil, a Collins, Miss., native. “They wanted to run, we wanted to run and may the best man win. We really have a good ball-control offense when we want to. It’s hard to get the ball away from us.”
Mississippi State had some success early, holding Tennessee to four or fewer plays on four first-half drives while taking an early lead.
Anthony Dixon, who rushed for 108 yards, scored almost untouched on a 31-yard run off left tackle that put the Bulldogs up 14-7. And after Taylor’s long touchdown, it looked like they might make it to halftime with the game tied. But Tennessee pulled away in the two series that sandwiched the break.
Mississippi State tried to run out the clock after holding Tennessee to a missed field goal attempt with 1:28 left in the first half.
But Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer used his team’s two timeouts to stop the clock during the Bulldogs’ three-and-out drive. After a short punt, Ainge found Taylor for a 26-yard gain to Mississippi State’s 30 and Lincoln atoned for his miss with a 47-yard field goal that gave the Volunteers a 17-14 lead.
The Bulldogs appeared to force another Volunteers field goal try immediately after halftime, but De’Mon Glanton was penalized for a late hit at the goal line and Foster punched the ball in two plays later for a 24-14 lead.
Wes Carroll narrowed that lead to 24-21 on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jamayel Smith on the next drive. But the Volunteers held the Bulldogs scoreless the rest of the way, allowing just 148 yards of total offense in the second half.
Carroll, a freshman who was diagnosed with a mild concussion at halftime, set a career-high with 203 yards on 18 of 33 passing. He also threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tony Burks.
But unlike Ainge, Carroll and the Bulldogs offense spent much of the fourth quarter on the sideline as the Volunteers held the ball for 9:54.
“What happens is when those big offensive linemen lay on you and keep laying on you, it’s harder to get off of those guys in the fourth quarter and make tackles on 235-pound backs,” Croom said. “As the game wears on, those 2 and 3 yarders become 10 and 12 yarders. It’s hard.”