So, my goodness. Not sure I saw that coming. Particularly after the first offensive series. In fact, the one thing that struck me all week was just how losable the Utah State game was.
There are definitely things to nitpick. Tennessee failed to exploit its significant field-position advantage in the first half. The rout could have been on after two touchdowns just 14 seconds apart, but only a measly field goal would follow for the rest of the half. Still, there’s no denying. The Vols played very well on both sides of the ball. And, ball don’t lie.
The Vols played lights-out in their 38-7 victory. Here are 10 things that stood out from the stands, in no particular order:
1. Bobby Denton
As I sat down before the game, it dawned on me that for the first time in my entire life, I would not hear Bobby Denton ask me to pay these prices and please pay no more. But I did heard it. Because the great Bobby Denton was honored in a really nice piece on the Jumbotron. And it felt good. Jeff Jarnigan is going to do a fantastic job as Neyland Stadium’s PA announcer, but there was only one Bobby Denton. And I’m so glad Vol Nation got to hear him on Sunday night.
2. Familiar Names
The entire game did nothing but further whet the insatiable appetite of glory-starved Vol fans, and when that happens, you start to think back. That’s a constant theme I hear from fellow fans. That insatiable appetite, and you can actually hear it in fans’ voices whenever they address that feeling that seems to be creeping back into the program. Into the stands.
And that feeling is dripping with nostalgia. Which is why it was really cool to hear a couple of familiar names lat night like Kelly and Bates. It just felt right, didn’t it?
3. Defense plays Tennessee Tough
My prediction was UT 31-21. So, yes, the offense played better than I had thought. But not by much. The defense, however, was quantum leaps ahead of where I thought they’d be. Struggles against mobile QBs? Not these dudes.
I knew Team 118 would wow me with athleticism, but I was taken by just how much that “wow” came on the defensive side of the ball. The line popped. Derek Barnett is a stud. Jordan Williams with the spin and the stick on the fourth and one. And AJ? Everywhere. So, too, was Jalen Reeves-Maybin. And the backend was outstanding. Cam Sutton gets his and rightfully so. But Brian Randolph sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does leading those guys. He looked great last night.
Cam Sutton got on this validation vibe last night, playing all nasty for the entire game, his acrobatic pick one of many plays which served notice that last year was no fluke. Not that anyone suspected as much. Because no one did. So maybe it was more like serving notice that there’s plenty more where the 2013 sizzle came from. Playa please. Vol fans are in for a treat with that guy this season. Again.
5. 3rd Down For What
It’s not that it’s not catchy. It is. And it’s not that it can’t rile a crowd. It can. But the average team will face something like 16 third downs a game. And if you bust that thing out for each and every one of those games, it’s gonna make Rocky Top look like Haley’s Comet.
Use it. By all means use it. It’s fantastic and I love it. But limit it to four times a game. MAX. And don’t feel like you always have to use all four, either.
Because compelling moments are compelling on their own accord. Let 3rd Down for What enhance those moments as opposed to trying to convert every single moment into something which most of them aren’t.
I can’t ever remember a game where there were more first-year players getting their number called. And as good as it was to hear TK Jr.’s name over the speakers, it was even better to watch him recover the fumble that Johnson forced on special teams.
Fact: Von Pearson looks good in the end zone.
Fact: So does Jalen Hurd.
Brick by Brick? A full wheelbarrow’s worth, apparently. Butch Jones is doing exactly what he said he’d do. Building this thing from the foundation up. Can you imagine being one of those bricks that was unloaded last night? And experiencing the overwhelming impact he and his fellow bricks were? Talk about buying in to the Nth degree. Which will the recruiting pitch even more juju, something it’s not exactly lacking right now.
And the Newcomers embody all of that.
7. I’m Pro Pig
Nowhere on the roster is the upgrade in talent more evident than at receiver. Von Pearson is absurd. Marquez North is frightening. Josh Smith refuses to go anywhere, except, perhaps, streaking down the sidelines. Jason Croom is playing as well as he ever has. And Josh Malone has all the potential in the world. Yet Alton Pig Howard still caught more balls than any of them. And ran a nifty jet sweep in for the Vols first touchdown of the year.
Remember how after he left the team, everyone was saying that while losing someone like Pig is never good, at least it was in a position where UT was loaded? I’m not sure folks would say that today. Because Pig sure seems to be at the middle of so many things that the Vols are trying to do on offense.
8. Run Orange, Run
At the change in quarters, Butch Jones’ Volunteers sprinted to take the other side of the field as quickly, aggressively — as swagliciously (not a word) as possible. And normally, I can take those deals or leave ’em. They have a way of coming off contrived.
But this works, man. It’s a positive display of energy that has a celebratory feel to it. It’s like a challenge to fist fight your opponent, yet never does it come anywhere near a taunt.
I guess the difference lies in the execution. If it’s lame and contrived, it’ll come off lame and contrived. But this sprinting deal is real to them. You can tell. And that’s why it works.
Justin Freaking Worley. Maybe you saw it coming, but I sure didn’t. Completing over 71% of his passes, three of them for touchdowns, none of them picked, for 273 yards. Were it not for a few drops, easily a 300-yard game.
But as impressive was how he led his offense. The up-tempo deal was really evident. And Worley was in complete control. What’s maybe even best of all is that he actually tucked it and got good yardage when it was there. Or when the passing lanes weren’t.
And I don’t ever remember Worley running the read option so effectively last year. Not even once. And props to the offensive line that gave him plenty of time to pass all night.
10. First Time Since?
Maybe Utah State will prove to be a flop this year. But don’t bet on it. That was a quality opponent Tennessee faced, particularly for a season opener. And the Vols made mincemeat of them. Which, again, will do nothing but whet the insatiable appetite of this fanbase — of this team — that’s been glory starved for years. Because it was a dominant effort. An onslaught.
And that’s the first time Tennessee has thoroughly whooped a quality team at home from word go since… little help here… 09 South Carolina, maybe? When Kiffin’s Vols rocked the black on that memorable Halloween night?
The big difference is that Lane’s team was a quick fix, or at least that’s what fans were hoping for at the time. That Lane would pick up the reigns that Fulmer had held so competently for so many years and immediately make those horses run again. But it wasn’t meant to be.
This team, however? This coaching staff? These players? They sure come off like they’re meant to be. Don’t get me wrong. The season has just begun. And one superb performance isn’t enough to alter expectations for the entire year. 6-6 would still be a wonderful mark for this team.
Yet even though that record wouldn’t be so different from that of the last four teams, make no mistake about it, Team 118 is a different story altogether. And after Sunday night, one can’t help but wonder if we’re finally getting to the part of the story where it starts to get good.