Tennessee 42, UNLV 17 - September 5, 2004
By Brian Rice
By Brian Rice
The 2004 season opener against UNLV was a game of firsts for Tennessee.
It started with the day of the week, Sunday. The schools agreed to move the game back a day for an ESPN national television audience, giving Neyland Stadium its first Sunday date.
Another first came under center, where the Volunteers had to replace a record-setting four year starter in Casey Clausen. Heading into fall camp, it looked like the battle would be between Casey's younger brother Rick, a redshirt junior and senior C.J. Leak. But as camp unfolded, a pair of talented freshmen, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, emerged from the battle listed as co-starters.
When Schaeffer lined up for UT's first offensive play in front of the crowd of 108,625, he became the first true freshman to start a season opener in the Southeastern Conference since 1945.
It wouldn't be the start Schaeffer and head coach Phillip Fulmer hoped for, however. The freshman fumbled on a sacked on the fourth play of the game deep in his own territory. The miscue led to a UNLV field goal that gave the Rebels an early 3-0 lead. Fortunately for Schaeffer and the Vols, the UT defense made sure those three points stayed by themselves on the UNLV scoreboard until the game was well out of reach.
On the next UT drive, Schaeffer and UT rebounded, relying on an experienced ground game powered by senior Cedric Houston and junior Gerald Riggs, Jr. for a 13-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Schaeffer scramble to make it 7-3.
Fans got their first look at Erik Ainge on the next possession and he didn't disappoint. A 23-yard run from Houston set up the Vols just shy of the midfield stripe. Ainge then hit C.J. Fayton with back-to-back passes for 9 and 42 yards to give UT the 14-3 lead. A run-heavy drive finished by a Riggs TD run put UT up 21-3 going into halftime.
"Just because they're freshmen, they're still talented," senior center Jason Respert said. "They made plays tonight and that's what we expected them to do."
After the teams traded punts to start the second half, Schaeffer showed off his arm with completions of 14, 24 and 35 yards, the last of which found Robert Meachem for a 28-3 lead.
UNLV finally reached the end zone with a 3-yard TD run with just over 5:00 left in the third quarter and added another score in the fourth. But another touchdown pass from Ainge and a Corey Larkins run kept the game fully in hand for the Volunteers with a 42-10 victory.
"It was about as good as we could hope for," Fulmer said of the freshmen quarterbacks. "They were well prepared for the style we want to build upon. The team around them picked them up. They were not under pressure to win the game. They've been that way all along. Those kids picked up what we wanted offensively and that's why we made the decision as quickly as we did."
The win gave Tennessee its 10th consecutive season-opening win, improving to a 15-1 record in the last 16 season debuts.
Ainge finished the game 10-17 for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Schaeffer was 7-10 for 123 yards and a score. Schaeffer started again two weeks later against Florida, but Ainge seized the job by leading a late-game comeback to upset the Gators, propelling Tennessee to the SEC Eastern Division Title.
Ainge would go on to throw for 8700 yards and 72 touchdowns in a career that saw two appearances in the SEC Championship game on the field and three Academic All-SEC honors off the field.