From Erik Ainge to Janzen Jackson; Vols Football Comes Full Circle

Scott FeltsContributor ISeptember 20, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 12: Lane Kiffin, head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers watches his team before a game against the UCLA Bruins on September 12, 2009 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. UCLA beat Tennessee 19-15. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

After this weekend’s 23-13 loss to the Florida Gators, the Blazer Chronicles is set to let everyone know just where Tennessee football is at: Tennessee football is back.


It’s not often that a team can lose by double digits on the road to its rival and proclaim to be “back”, but the Tennessee Volunteers are set to do just that. 


To better understand just how this proclamation can be made, one must first understand where the Vols football program was at, when it got there, and what moment in Saturdays loss to Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators that the program took that first step back. 


This article is here to give you that story.


Our story begins on November 6, 2004 inside Neyland Stadium. Tennessee was playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Vols led 10-7 just before the half. They were 7-1 and ranked ninth in the country. Tennessee had the ball, and freshman quarterback Erik Ainge was at the helm of the offense.


It was just before halftime and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders made the call to attempt to move the Vols into field goal range instead of taking the lead to the locker room. Ainge took the snap, which was loose on the ground, tried to make a play and was tackled by the Irish’s Brandon Hoyte. What initially resulted was a separated shoulder for the freshman phenom.


What happened long term was much worse for the Volunteer football program. 


Brandon Hoyte would say after the game; “You don’t just hit people to tackle them.  You tackle them so they won’t get back up. I say that respectfully.”


Erik Ainge didn’t get back up in 2004 and respectfully speaking, Phil Fulmer never got back up. Sure, the Vols went to the SEC Championship that season, and again in 2007, but both were losses. 


Even more devastating was that in the 57 games that ended between November 6th 2004 and September 19, 2009 the Volunteers’ program only outscored their opponents an average of 26-21 (take away the 63-7 win over Western Kentucky this season and it drops to 25-22), and compiled a record of only 33 wins and 24 losses.  Tennessee had two losing seasons during that time. They had three different offensive coordinators, and fired future Hall of Fame coach Phil Fulmer. The Vols' football program reached Rocky Bottom.


Fast forward to this past Saturday inside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators were leading 10-6, just one point more than the Vols were leading Notre Dame five years ago. The Gators were trying to score at the end of the half. Also like Tennessee, the play ended up being Florida’s final offensive snap of the half. 


Tim Tebow dropped back to pass and threw to Brandon James in the end zone.  That’s when it happened. Tennessee true freshman defensive back Janzen Jackson leveled a hit on James that would be rewound and played over and over in living rooms across the Volunteer state. The hit knocked the ball loose and it fell to the turf, incomplete.


The Gators had to settle for a FG and all at once, in one massive hit, Janzen Jackson awoke Tennessee Football. In just over 24 hours, the 17 second clip has over 1,000 hits on YouTube. 


Tennessee didn’t go on to win the football game against the No. 1 ranked defending National Champion Florida Gators, but they did earn a lot of respect from media, fans, and even the Florida Gators.


The postgame handshake didn’t last long, but Urban Meyer did manage to tell Kiffin, “You played hard, man.”


Meyer was right. Just in the context of Tennessee vs. Florida games, the Vols were outscored only 10-7 after “the hit” and in the four-and-a-half games before the hit, and since Ainge’s injury, the Gators outscored the Vols 136-56. 


“The hit” was more than just a pass defended. It was the shot that united Tennessee fans across the country. From Gainesville, Florida to Greeneville, Tennessee; from the Carolina coast to the California coast, Tennessee fans, future opponents, and potential recruits all witnessed the intensity and passion that Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff have brought to Tennessee football. They witnessed it all in one play. 


After the game, Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin said, “I think we have a powerful message around the country about what’s going on in Tennessee Football.  I think there is a real strong message about Tennessee football out there right now.” 


That message is that Tennessee football is back. The Volunteers have come full circle. The passion, the intensity, and the will to win are all there. The coaching staff is there. The playmakers are there. The last thing that needs to return to Tennessee football is wins.   


Those wins begin piling up, this Saturday at Neyland Stadium against Ohio University at 7pm.