TAMPA, Fla. (WVLT) -- Tennessee's Outback Bowl performance against Wisconsin was a mirror image of the way the Vols played all year long.
The Vols surged to a comfortable first-half lead -- 21-7 -- but became stagnant on offense in the second half, allowing the Badgers to creep back into the game.
Then, just as they have for much of the season, the Vols made the breaks when it mattered most, holding on for a 21-17 win to give the program its fourth 10-win season this decade.
"I'm so proud for these kids. They have fought and had great energy throughout the year," Phillip Fulmer said. "To fight through the adversity and fight through the negativity and come away with ten wins in a big game here today, I'm just really really proud of them."
Erik Ainge ended his Tennessee career on a positive note, throwing for 365 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 25-of-43 passing. Perhaps his most important statistics came on third down, when he was 10-of-13 for 178 yards.
"Erik's meant everything [to the program]," Fulmer said. "As a freshman he's compared to the greatest that's ever played at Tennessee in Peyton Manning, had his struggles as a sophomore, and the last two years have just been incredible. He's a true winner and he's gonna have a great future in pro football."
Ainge's favorite target was freshman Denarius Moore, who hauled in four passes for 86 yards.
P.J. Hill led Wisconsin offensively with 132 rushing yards, 50 of which came on a fourth-quarter run which got the Badgers down to the Tennesse 18.
Wisconsin's Elijah Hodge blocked a Daniel Lincoln field goal attempt on Tennessee's previous drive, halting a long Tennessee drive at the 26. Two plays later, the 50-yard run got the Badgers deep inside UT territory, serving as the longest play from scrimmage for either team. But Tennessee stood firm, forcing fourth-and-1, then making Tyler Donovan toss up an errant pass in the face of pressure, a throw which sailed into the seats.
On the ensuing drive, Tennessee resorted to runs and short passes to run the clock, converting a key third-and-6 with a 15-yard completion to Arian Foster.
The Vols appeared to have another key third-down conversion after a 25-yard completion to Josh Briscoe, but the officials ruled that Briscoe fumbled the ball at the end of the run and gave the ball to Wisconsin. After reviewing the call, however, replay officials overturned the call, ruling that the Wisconsin player recovered the football out of bounds.
The play moved the ball to the Badger 40-yard-line and allowed the Vols to run more time off the clock. The Vols punted to Wisconsin with 1:30 remaining, and Wisconsin drove into Volunteer territory. But on first-and-5 at the 36, Antonio Wardlow intercepted a Tyler Donovan deep pass into the end zone, sliding to the turf and sealing Tennessee's first bowl win since the 2004 season.
Tennessee responded to Wisconsin's field goal drive with a nice offensive series of its own. Erik Ainge completed two third-and-long passes to move onto the Badgers' side of the field, then made a key first-down throw to Gerald Jones on fourth-and-3, moving the chains to the Wisconsin 15.
Then Phillip Fulmer made an interesting decision, taking out Ainge and running Gerald Jones three times from the quarterback position, setting up the blocked field goal.
Wisconsin kicker Taylor Mehlhaff hit a 27-yard field goal to shorten Tennessee's lead to 21-17 with nine seconds left in the third quarter at the Outback Bowl.
Both teams were held on their first drives of the second half, and Wisconsin took over at its own 38-yard-line with 10:30 left in the third quarter. Tennessee held the Badgers to a three-and-out and took over at its own 20 after a touchback.
Quarterback Tyler Donovan returned to the game after missing a series with a leg injury, leading Wisconsin into Tennessee territory. The Badgers scored on a 4-yard pass to fullback Andy Crooks, making the score 21-14 with 1:03 left in the first half.
Erik Ainge passed to Brad Cottam on a rollout pass, and Cottam rumbled 31 yards for a touchdown, capping a four-play, 51-play drive to give Tennessee a 21-7 lead with more than six minutes left in the first half.
Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo drilled Wisconsin QB Tyler Donovan as he slid to the turf, and Donovan lay on the ground for several minutes as trainers tended to him.
The injury means backup quarterback Allan Evridge will enter the game for the Badgers. The junior has thrown only 11 passes this season, completing five for 66 yards.
Erik Ainge found Josh Briscoe streaking across the field on a post route for a 29-yard touchdown connection, giving Tennessee a 14-7 lead with 9:45 left in the first half. The pass capped off a quick 3-play drive which covered 61 yards.
Two Erik Ainge first-down passes covering 30 yards got the Vols inside Wisconsin territory, then Ainge hit Briscoe for the score.
Robert Ayers sacked Tyler Donovan on third-and-3, ending the Wisconsin offensive series just inside Badger territory. The Vols took over at their own 13 after Dennis Rogan's punt return was stuffed.
Ainge led the Vols inside Badger territory, but the Vols were unable to convert a first down and punted the ball to Wisconsin, who took over at its 11.
The Vols quickly pushed the ball inside Wisconsin territory following the Badgers' first score of the game, as Montario Hardesty ran 26 yards to the Wisconsin 44 on second-and-3.
Ainge found Quintin Hancock for a 25-yard pickup on second down to get inside the 20, but a trick play backfired: Ainge attempted to hand the ball through the legs of running back Lennon Creer, but Creer never got a handle on the football, fumbling it and giving Wisconsin the football.
After Tennessee scored early in the first quarter, Wisconsin returned the kickoff 60 yards, starting at the Tennessee 22 after a face mask was tacked on.
The Badgers capitalized on the advantageous field position, scoring on a six-yard run by quarterback Tyler Donovan on third and goal to tie the game.
Gerald Jones scored his second rushing touchdown of the season, blasting off guard for a four-yard touchdown surge to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead just over five minutes into the Outback Bowl.
A sack and a fumble headlined Tennessee's first defensive series, making it a short one.
On second and two, Xavier Mitchell tripped up Wisconsin quarterback Tyler Donovan. Then, on the next play, Paul Hubbard pulled in Donovan's pass for a 27-yard gain, but fumbled the ball. UT cornerback DeAngelo Willingham recovered at the Tennessee 34.
On third and 11, Ainge hit Denarius Moore over the middle, and Moore found a seam in the Badgers' coverage and ran 40 yards, moving the ball inside the Wisconsin 30.
After an Erik Ainge sneak earned Tennessee a first down, Arian Foster ran off tackle for a 13-yard pickup inside the 5-yard-line. Jones ran for the touchdown on second and goal.
Tennessee received the opening kickoff from Wisconsin, taking the ball in the end zone for a touchback. On the first play from scrimmage, Arian Foster ran off left tackle for a 20-yard pickup, but Josh Briscoe was called for a hold, negating the gain.
Erik Ainge threw his first pass of the game on second-and-15, just overshooting Briscoe on a fly route. On third down, Ainge misfired and hit the hands of a Badger linebacker, ending the Vols' first series in a three-and-out. Britton Colquitt's punt was fielded at the Wisconsin 41.