Run and Shoot: Ainge Leads South To Comeback Win

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Ainge Leads South To Comeback Win

MOBILE, Ala. - In a game filled with some of college football's brightest stars, the 2008 Senior Bowl was conspicuously missing something: big plays and a standout performance. Until the final two minutes, at least.

The South ended up walking away with a 17-16 victory over the North at a rainy, dreary and cold Ladd-Peebles Stadium thanks to Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge and a dramatic, game-winning touchdown drive.

Ainge led the South down the field on a 14-play, 86-yard drive as Florida wide out Andre Caldwell scored from two yards out on a reverse with four seconds remaining. With the North defense fooled, Caldwell beat two defenders to the goal line and Georgia's Brandon Coutu tacked on the PAT with no time remaining to earn the South its first win since 2004.

"That's a great call by (offensive coordinator Mike) Martz," Ainge said. "That was all him and we have to give him the credit."

Ainge completed six passes on the final drive, but his three straight incompletions at the 2 yard line threatened to leave the South standing on the doorstep of victory with nothing to show and the definitively pro-South crowd heartbroken.

But Martz's reverse turned out to be the perfect call and the South executed beautifully. Immediately after Ainge handed off to Caldwell, he raised his hands to signal touchdown and Caldwell just made it.

On the final drive, Ainge connected on passes of 4, 18, 3, 22, 23 and 13 yards, managing the South team over the final 2:48 that did not have the luxury of stopping the clock with every first down. The game was played under NFL rules.

"The offensive line did a great job and the receivers made plays," AInge said of the final drive. "It's easy when the receivers make plays."

But other than the final drive, the game was mostly a bore. It featured a number of turnovers and only a few plays over 20 yards. There were dropped balls, poorly thrown passes, two missed field goals and plenty of wasted opportunities for both teams to have taken firmer control of the game. The two squads combined for just 641 yards of total offense and a 34 percent third down conversion rate.

Tulane's Matt Forte was named the game's MVP. The running back finished 97 yards of total offense, catching four balls for 38 yards and rushing for 59 yards on eight carries.

Despite Forte winning the MVP, there was no one performance that especially stood out above the others in the final collegiate game for the 100-plus seniors who spent the past week learning under two NFL coaching staffs and conducting extensive interviews with all 32 teams.

The six quarterbacks - three on each side - were shuffled in and out of the lineup and the South offensive line allowed four sacks.

But in the grand scheme of things, the game means little for the players. The scouts and executive who flooded here this week put much more stock in the four practices and the interviews they conducted over the week. And never was that more evident after witnessing the mass exodus of scouts - at least the ones that were left - leaving the press box in the middle of the third quarter and into the fourth. They had seen enough to satisfy their needs and one final, dramatic drive wasn't going to sway any opinions or force any evaluations to be revised.

Player of the Game: Erik Ainge. He calmly and coolly led the South down the field for the game winning touchdown. He was the only effective quarterback for the South, finishing 13-of-21 for 159 yards. He wasn't perfect on the final drive - far from it, in fact - but he hit his receivers when he needed to.

Play of the Game: The Mike Martz called reverse on the final play of the game. If Ainge had handed it off to Forte, as the North thought was the case, the South's comeback would have been thwarted because the North stuffed the left side of the line where the play originally looked to be headed. As it was, Ainge and the South had a trick up their sleeve and fooled the North perfectly.

Up Next: The NFL Combine awaits nearly all of the Senior Bowl participants in Indianapolis Feb. 20-26. Until then, the players will rev up their training regiments and focus all their energies toward making a big impression at the RCA Dome.

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