ATLANTA — Tennessee was 10 minutes away from winning the Southeastern Conference championship.
Coming so close just compounded the heartbreak when it slipped away from the Volunteers.
LSU’s Jonathan Zenon picked off Erik Ainge for a back-breaking interception return for a touchdown with 9:54 remaining in the SEC title game, and Ryan Perriloux ran for the 2-point conversion to help the Tigers hang a 21-14 loss on the Vols.
“I knew what they was going to run, and I had an opportunity to jump in front of the ball exactly when I did,” Zenon said.
Tennessee (9-4) has been to this stage three times since the national championship season of 1998. The Vols have come away empty-handed all three times.
“This is a special, special team and they have fought their tail off to get here,” Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. “We were meant to win that ballgame and we just didn’t get it done.”
The 14th-ranked Vols had the chance to at least tie it after Zenon‘s pick-six, and were driving the field for a potential touchdown. But, deep in Tigers territory, Ainge threw another interception with 2:42 remaining that all but clinched an LSU victory.
“We felt it, man,” UT tight end Chris Brown said. “Driving down on that last drive we felt it.”
Early on, it had all the makings of another offensive showcase. The Vols scored a touchdown to cap the game’s opening drive, and No. 5 LSU (11-2) answered by marching 63 yards to settle for a field goal.
The Tigers tacked on another three points off the foot of Colt David, but the two teams combined for a scoreless second quarter — only the third period sans points in SEC title game history.
After David missed his third 30-yard field goal attempt of the half, the Tigers went into the locker room trailing 7-6 despite a glaring statistical advantage. LSU gained 271 yards to UT’s 93 in the first half and held the ball for 21:20, including 12:30 in the second period.
The Tigers opened the second half by parlaying numbers into points, with Perriloux hitting Demetrius Byrd on a 27-yard touchdown to cap the first drive coming out of intermission.
Then the Vols transformed an LSU mistake into points, when Eric Berry recovered a fumble by Trindon Holliday. Ainge, with a little help from freshman Gerald Jones at signal caller, marshaled UT on a nine-play, 66-yard drive capped by a 6-yard scoring strike to Josh Briscoe with 3:09 left in the third period.
As time continued to tick off with Tennesee still in front, confidence seemed to swell among the Vols — particularly on defense, with Jerod Mayo, Berry and company delivering on several punishing hits. In the process, UT held LSU to its lowest point total of the season.
“There’s no gratification,” Vol defensive tackle Demonte Bolden said. “Yeah we played good but there’s no victory. Ain’t no SEC Championship. I’m tired of second, I don’t like second, I was not raised to come in second. I came to Tennessee to come in first. You know what I’m saying? I wanted to be first.
“We felt like when we got on that bus that things were going to be different. That God was going to be on our side. But some things God does and it doesn’t work out so good.”
While Ainge’s interceptions were memorable, LSU hardly played mistake-free football. Perriloux threw an interception and the Tigers committed nine penalties — Tennessee did not draw a single yellow flag.
Perriloux, playing for injured starter Matt Flynn, went from backup to SEC championship game MVP. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 243 yards. Jacob Hester ran for 121 yards as part of a 212-yard performance on the ground for LSU.
The Outback and Chick-fil-A Bowls appear to be the most likely destinations for Tennessee.