Playing before a sold-out Neyland Stadium and in front of a national television audience on the new SEC Network, the Vols, and the rest of country, finally got some answers about this young team in a commanding 38-7 victory.
After dismantling a Utah State team that was a trendy pick nationally to pull off the upset, the Vols are clearly heading in the right direction.
“I knew we were ready to go by our overall demeanor, starting yesterday in our walk-throughs and at the hotel,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones. “I thought our older players did a tremendous job of mentoring the younger guys. I thought Justin [Worley] played a very, very productive football game. He played winning football at the quarterback position.
“First game, you always worry about turnovers. We forced three and we didn’t turn the football over. I thought we played well on special teams. We gave up one return that we’ve got to work to get better on, but zero turnovers in a first game is great to see.”
Tennessee found ways to energize the crowd early. Worley connected with Josh Smith on a quick-hitter on the second drive that turned into a 38-yard reception after he got a nice block from Pig Howard and found space down the sideline. Howard was rewarded a couple plays later, taking a jet sweep around right end into the end zone to give UT the early 7-0 edge.
Two plays later the Vols were on the scoreboard again. A.J. Johnson forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff that was recovered by Todd Kelly Jr. Worley then hit tight end Brendan Downs on a 12-yard touchdown strike to put the Vols up 14-0 less than six minutes into the contest.
“That gained us momentum and confidence,” Howard said of the fast start. “It created a lot of energy on the field and sidelines. All around as a unit, it helped everybody.”
And though the Vols didn’t keep up that rapid scoring pace in the first half, the defense made sure that Utah State didn’t make it too interesting. Facing quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who some have deemed a dark-horse Heisman candidate heading into the 2014 season, the Vols had arguably their best defensive performance since Jones arrived at Tennessee.
They were particularly stingy on third down. With Neyland Stadium debuting its new “Third Down for What?” hype song to get the crowd loud on third-down situations, the defense responded – holding the Aggies to just three third-down conversions on 14 attempts on the evening.
“I think a lot of time, it was third-and-long situations and we had the key fourth-down stop early that provided a momentum change and field position,” Jones said. “It was critical. So much about football is field position and hidden yardage. I thought we stayed ahead of the sticks defensively and put them in third-and-long situations.”
And while the defense answered those questions, Worley took command on the other side of the ball. The senior played one of his best games in a Tennessee uniform, completing 27-of-38 passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. After an Aaron Medley field goal extended UT’s lead to 17-0, Worley helped put the game out of reach with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Von Pearson and a 14-yarder to Jalen Hurd that put the Vols up 31-0. The skill players did a lot of the work on those plays. But Worley did a great job managing the offense and getting the ball to those playmakers so they could create in the open field.
“Justin was calm and collected and he acted like he had been there before,” said Jones. “He was kind of a calming presence on the sideline. I thought our receivers, for the most part, did a good job of catching the football. They made some really good catches to extend drives and we haven’t had that in the past, so it was great to see as well. Some of the quick touches, Von Pearson makes a great play in the open field, and that’s what we need to be able to do.”
Tennessee also began the process of getting some answers about the newcomers on the roster. Twenty-one true freshman stepped on the field for the first time. In total, 32 players made their UT debut. Hurd had 11 carries for 29 yards and a touchdown reception. Josh Malone and Ethan Wolf each had multiple catches. Kelly Jr. recovered the fumble on the kickoff return. Jashon Robertson and Derek Barnett both started and played the majority of the game on the line of scrimmage.
“I thought our freshmen did a great job of responding to the Vol Walk and then 102,455 fans,” said Worley. “They responded well and they came out with the lights on and played the way they’re capable of playing.”
The same can be said of this entire Tennessee team. It’s a long way from what Jones wants to see. More unknowns and questions are sure to pop up along the way. But at least on this night, the Vols finally started getting some answers.