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Tennessee holds off Wisconsin in Outback Bowl

Jan 1, 2008 - 9:31 PM TAMPA, Florida (Ticker) -- Phillip Fulmer and Tennessee ended a turbulent season on a positive note.

Erik Ainge passed for 366 yards and two touchdowns in his final game as the 16th-ranked Volunteers defeated No. 18 Wisconsin, 21-17, in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday.

While Tennessee (10-4) lost to Louisiana State, 21-14, in the Southeastern Conference championship game, the Volunteers won six of their last seven contests to reach 10 victories for the ninth time in Fulmer's 15 seasons as coach.

Tennessee also made amends for a 20-10 loss to Penn State in last year's Outback Bowl.

"Winning and losing, if anyone says that isn't everything, they're lying," said Ainge, who completed 25-of-43 passes. "Winning the game leaves a good taste in your mouth."

Antonio Wardlaw, a backup safety, sealed the win by intercepting Wisconsin quarterback Tyler Donovan's pass with 28 seconds remaining.

The Badgers (9-4) had reached Tennessee's 36-yard line on their final possession and Donovan attempted a pass into the end zone, but Wardlaw picked it off at the goal line.

After getting routed at Alabama, 41-17, on October 20, the Volunteers seemed on the verge of collapsing. They fell to 4-3, and a vocal group of Tennessee fans began calling for Fulmer's ouster.

But the team pulled together, as 191 former players signed a petition supporting Fulmer.

"Obviously, we're very proud with the win, without question," Fulmer said. "It finishes off a very challenging season, to say the least, and to finish with 10 wins is an honor."

On Tuesday, the Volunteers benefited from a questionable play call by Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and a video replay that reversed what could have been a critical fumble late in the contest.

P.J. Hill, who missed Wisconsin's final three regular-season games, ripped off a 50-yard run, giving the Badgers a first down at the 18 and putting them in position to erase the 21-17 deficit.

Instead of giving the ball to Hill on 4th-and-2, however, Bielema elected to pass.

Donovan, who threw for only 154 yards, dropped back in a designed rollout but had no open receivers and threw the ball threw the end zone.

"The biggest thing is we were unable to execute," said Bielema, who said he never considered kicking a field goal. "We had one timeout and we were in an unfamiliar stadium."

Tennessee took over on downs at Wisconsin's 10-yard line with 5:37 remaining.

Five plays later, Ainge converted a 3rd-and-4 with a 25-yard pass to Josh Briscoe to the Badgers' 40. Briscoe lost the ball at the end of the run, but the call of a fumble on the field was overturned by the replay.

The Volunteers looked sharp in the first half, with Ainge tossing a pair of TD passes in the second quarter to give Tennessee a 21-7 lead with six minutes left in the half.

"The receivers know that they need to cut their routes shorter to get the passes I'm throwing," Ainge said. "That's why we've been successful under pressure."

Bielema admitted that Tennessee's no-huddle offense hurt the Badgers.

"It's a unique no-huddle," he said. "It's not really a speed-up. The key at the end was our inability to get off the field on third down."

Still, Donovan's four-yard TD pass to Andy Crooks with 1:04 remaining pulled the Badgers within 21-14 at the intermission.

Tennessee's offense sputtered in the third quarter, managing only 11 yards, and Wisconsin closed within 21-17 on Taylor Mehlhaff's 27-yard field with nine seconds left in the period.

The Volunteers had a chance to extend the lead, but Elijah Hodge blocked Daniel Lincoln's 29-yard field goal with 9:40 remaining.

However, the Volunteers held off the Badgers in the final minutes, giving Tennessee some momentum heading into the 2008 campaign.

"They hung in tough when the times were tough," Fulmer said. "The character, the attitude that they've had throughout the year - it hasn't necessarily been fun."