It was just like the good old days on good old Rocky Top. Neyland stadium was raucous. Receivers were catching the ball and converting missed tackles into touchdowns. The defense was stifling highly-touted running backs.
Erik Ainge, the face of the miserable 2005 season, was on Saturday night against ninth-ranked California the face of resurgence.
With the first bone-crushing blow by Robert Ayers on the kickoff, the Volunteers served notice on poor Craig Stevens, the California Bears, the Pac-10, and college football fans everywhere. Stevens never returned, and Cal never recovered.
Tennessee's defense throttled the supposedly potent Cal offense, and the humbled Tennessee offense raced over, around, and through the Cal defense time after time after time. After time. And one more time after that.
Ainge and the Volunteer offense produced two touchdowns in the first half and then scored three more in the first six snaps of the third quarter. They had four scoring plays of 40 yards or longer compared to only one during the entire Season of Which We Do Not Speak. Ainge went 11 of 17 for 291 yards and four touchdowns. He maintained his composure even after throwing an interception, throwing three straight touchdown passes on his next three attempts. Receiver Robert Meachem also had a career night, catching five passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense held Cal's high-octane offense to a total of 86 yards in the first half, 36 of which came on the first play of the game. Heisman candidate Marshawn Lynch only had 74 yards on 12 carries, and when you account for lost yards, the entire Cal offense rushed for a mere 64 yards. That includes the fourth quarter, when a satisfied Tennessee team had already waddled over to the sofa and unbuckled its britches.
Either the players or the fans were running their mouths before the game, yelling, "Pac-10, Pac-10, Pac-10." By the end of the game, they'd been treated to two rounds of "S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C," multiple refrains of "Overrated," and one emphatic, "Na, na, na, na . . . na, na, na, na . . . hey, hey, hey . . . goodbye."
California was not ready for Rocky Top. Several comments made during the week hinted at that fact. When asked if he was concerned about the speed of the SEC, Cal's new offensive coordinator said he'd played against fast defenses in the Big 10. Starting QB Nate Longshore said that Neyland Stadium "was loud on the video game." The team ignored the warning signs of a quarterback controversy, and bought into the hype of their highest national ranking in decades.
The Tennessee players and fans were more than happy to exploit Cal's overconfidence. Fans, piling decibels upon decibels, teamed with the defense to rattle the starting quarterback until he was replaced. And time and again, Cal found its running game stymied when it simply could not turn upfield due to the pursuit of UT's speedy linebackers.
And wonder of wonders, a reanimated Erik Ainge and ahead-to-the-past offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe showed California what it was like to play on Rocky Top.
Good old Rocky Top.