KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Months of frustration ended for Tennessee with an easy win against a ranked team.
Rocky Top returned to normal Saturday as Erik Ainge threw four passes for touchdowns and the Volunteers put last year's losing season behind them with a stunning 35-18 win over ninth-ranked California.
Robert Meachem caught two of the touchdowns for No. 23 Tennessee, including an 80-yarder at the start of the third quarter that created a frenzy among the orange-clad fans.
For at least a week, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer will be spared from speculation about how many games he needs to win to keep his job. Fulmer described his only losing season as a 5-6 aberration, and the Vols might have proved him right.
Tennessee had been 0-6 against top 10 teams in Neyland Stadium since 2000, and many of the 106,009 in attendance stayed to the end. After all, their last glimpse of the 2005 Vols was in an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt.
For the Golden Bears, it was a shocking blow at the beginning of a greatly anticipated season. Cal's ranking was its highest since 1952.
Many believe this could be the Bears' year to challenge Southern California for the Pac-10 title, and they still could with this loss outside conference play. But any run at a national championship was likely dashed.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford brought in new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar from Northwestern to add the spread offense, but the Bears could do little against the speedy Tennessee defense.
Sophomore Nate Longshore was making his first start at quarterback on the road after missing nearly all of last season with an injury. Joe Ayoob, who replaced Longshore last year, relieved him in the third quarter and made the score more respectable with a 40-yard TD pass to DeSean Jackson and a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Marshawn Lynch, who the Bears are pushing for the Heisman Trophy, had 35 yards on five carries at halftime and finished with 74 yards on 12 carries.
After halftime, the game turned into the kind of romp the Vols were accustomed to in the 1990s with Peyton Manning under the tutelage of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who was making his return to his old job. Cutcliffe returned to Knoxville to replace Randy Sanders after he resigned last season as head of one of the worst offenses in the country.
Cutcliffe's main task was to rebuild Ainge after he struggled last year in a rotation with senior Rick Clausen. Ainge warmed up early with a 41-yard strike to Meachem on Tennessee's first offensive play.
Ainge finished 11-of-17 for 291 yards as his uncle, Boston Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, watched from the stands.
Ainge had plenty of protection from Cal's vaunted defensive line anchored by All-Pac-10 tackle Brandon Mebane.
Chris Brown caught the Vols' first TD pass, a 12-yarder from Ainge.
Ainge then had a pass that was intercepted when the ball bounced off the receiver's hands to Cal's Brandon Hampton, but the Bears gave the ball back two plays later when Longshore's pass was picked off.
The Vols got a break that led to their second touchdown that put them up 14-0 with 3:07 left before halftime.
Meachem caught a pass and turned up field toward the first-down marker, but the official called him short. Fulmer threw down his hat, and the officials in the review booth looked at it again. They determined Meachem reached the first down. Two plays later, Meachem hauled in another pass, broke a tackle and beat the defenders down the sideline to the end zone for a 42-yard TD.
Jayson Swain added a 50-yard touchdown reception, and redshirt freshman Montario Hardesty broke a free from a slew of tacklers for a 43-yard run for another score midway through the third quarter.
Chants of overrated started in the third quarter.
For more coverage of the Tennessee Volunteers, check out VolQuest.com and for more coverage of the California Golden Bears, check out BearTerritory.net.