KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Midway through the first half of Tennessee's game against ninth-ranked California at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, Volunteers quarterback Erik Ainge threw a pass that looked like so many he threw during a turnover-plagued sophomore season in 2005.
Ainge, who went from freshman All-American in 2004 to benched scapegoat during the Vols' 5-6 season last year, had just thrown a pass behind receiver Lucas Taylor, who tipped the football into the air. The pass was intercepted by safety Brandon Hampton, who returned it 30 yards. Suddenly, the No. 23-ranked Volunteers' 7-0 lead seemed in danger.
As Ainge walked to the sideline, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe asked his quarterback whether he had problems seeing Taylor running the crossing route.
"No," Ainge told him. "I just made a bad throw."
Ainge's response was exactly what Cutcliffe wanted to hear. Cutcliffe, who was the Volunteers' offensive coordinator during their national championship season in 1998 and tutored quarterback Peyton Manning and later his younger brother, Eli, as coach at Ole Miss, didn't want to hear Ainge say he couldn't read the defense. More than anything, though, Cutcliffe didn't want to hear excuses from his much-maligned quarterback.
"That's a good start," Cutcliffe said. "Sometimes we throw bad balls and that's OK. I think he understood that was OK. I'd rather hear that than a reason why."
Ainge didn't make another bad throw or decision the rest of the night. And with Cutcliffe adding variety and big-play possibilities to the Volunteers in his first game back as offensive coordinator, Tennessee blasted the Bears 35-18 in front of a sellout crowd of 106,009. It was a dominating performance by the Volunteers, who won 10 games or more eight times under Fulmer before slipping so badly last season.
"I can't sit here and say I didn't expect it," Fulmer said. "We made some things happen on offense. I think David Cutcliffe has energized our offense. We expected to win this football game and be Tennessee."
The memories of a year ago, when the Volunteers tripped and fell all over themselves during their first losing campaign in Fulmer's 14 seasons as coach of his alma mater, seemed like a distant memory after only one game. Tennessee had 514 yards offense and was more than balanced, with 216 yards rushing and 298 passing. The final score might have been 50-0 if Fulmer had left his starters in the game during the second half.
Tennessee's defense was just as dominating as its offense, limiting the Bears to 64 rushing yards and only 64 passing yards in the first half. Volunteers defensive end Robert Ayers knocked California tight end Craig Stevens out of the game with a concussion with a ferocious hit on the opening kickoff -- Stevens wobbled off the field with the help of trainers -- and the Bears never seemed to adjust to the speed and physical play of their opponents.
But the night belonged to Ainge, who was perhaps the team's biggest question mark after he completed less than 50 percent of his passes with only five touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Ainge, the nephew of former Boston Celtics guard Danny Ainge, more than answered those concerns.
"If Coach Cutcliffe told me to play without a helmet or play without a mouthpiece or with one cleat, I would do it. Whatever he tells me, I'm going to do it. I think we've bought all in as an offense. You could tell just watching us. There weren't any penalties, there wasn't the miscues from throwing to quarterback to receivers. Everything is just real crisp."
-- Tennesssee QB Erik Ainge
In a span of six plays late in the first half and early in the second, Ainge threw three long touchdown passes to give the Volunteers a stunning 28-0 lead. On Tennessee's last play of the first half, Ainge threw a 42-yard touchdown to Robert Meachem. Ainge and Meachem connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the second half, with the junior wideout running 75 yards after breaking a tackle. Ainge's fourth touchdown of the game was a 50-yarder to senior Jayson Swain.
Last season, Tennessee had only one scoring play of 40 yards or longer.
Ainge, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 291 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, gave much of the credit to Cutcliffe.
"If Coach Cutcliffe told me to play without a helmet or play without a mouthpiece or with one cleat, I would do it," Ainge said. "Whatever he tells me, I'm going to do it. I think we've bought all in as an offense. You could tell just watching us. There weren't any penalties, there wasn't the miscues from throwing to quarterback to receivers. Everything is just real crisp."
Said Meachem, who had five catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns: "Coach Cutcliffe is an offensive guru."
Ainge's transformation began during the offseason, when Cutcliffe told the quarterback to lose his earring, cut his hair and dress more appropriately. Cutcliffe also wanted Ainge to start acting like a team leader. Cutcliffe, who abruptly resigned as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator in the spring of 2005 after undergoing triple bypass surgery on his heart, also knew he had to tread lightly with Ainge.
As a sophomore, Ainge struggled mightily with his confidence, which caused him to fall out of favor with his teammates. Senior Rick Clausen eventually replaced Ainge as Tennessee's starting quarterback last season, and Ainge regained the job only after Clausen injured his knee.
Tennessee running back Arian Foster said Ainge is a much more confident player now.
"I could see a little swagger and he's having fun out there," Foster said. "He's down there making jokes every now and then during the TV timeouts. He's just out there having fun."
Cutcliffe went a long way in restoring Ainge's confidence on the Volunteers' first offensive play of the game. From Tennessee's 12-yard line, Ainge dropped back and threw deep down the left sideline for Meachem, who beat cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson for a 44-yard gain. The Volunteers continued to attack Thompson, a redshirt freshman who was forced into action when senior Tim Mixon tore knee ligaments during preseason camp. Meachem ran past Thompson on both his touchdown catches.
"We decided to take a chance," Ainge said. "We weren't necessarily looking to attack [Thompson]. We actually thought [cornerback Daymeion Hughes] would guard Robert. But Thompson was out there and he hadn't played before, and playing your first game in Neyland Stadium is going to be tough, no matter who you are. So we went after him."
Cutcliffe was confident his receivers, who struggled with dropped passes and running shoddy routes last season, could beat the Bears' secondary in isolated matchups. It was up to Ainge to deliver the football.
"I felt good," Cutcliffe said. "I felt like we had a good plan. We tried to formation them a little bit and get some isolation in coverage and we were able to do that. Any time you can do that, you feel like guys who work hard have a chance to make some plays. That was about players making plays. That makes my job a whole lot easier."
Tennessee receivers coach Trooper Taylor said the Bears also made the Volunteers' jobs easier. Taylor said the Volunteers were able to pick up California's defensive signals from the coaches' box and relay the signals to the sideline. So sometimes, Ainge knew what defense he was going to face before he even stepped to the line of scrimmage.
"[Ainge] was a master with his blitz checks and got us in some situations to be successful in the run game," Cutcliffe said. "That was growth for him. He responded well."
And, for one game, at least, it felt like old times again at Tennessee.
"I certainly feel like I made the right decision in bringing David back here," Fulmer said. "I thought David called a great game."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.