The Red Wolves made it interesting. They faked a punt, attempted an onside kick, threw in some trick plays and converted a key fourth down to stick around for most of the contest.
But in the end, Tennessee fought through some setbacks to claim the 34-19 win, surviving a pair of tricky early-season, non-conference matchups to move to 2-0 on the year.
“First of all, good victory,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. “A lot of learning lessons, a lot of great teaching opportunities. These are going to be the days of a young football team. We’re learning how to win. Teams find ways to win football games when they don’t play their best football. I’m very proud of them that way, but make no mistake, we have a long ways to go…But a win is a win and it’s a great win against a very quality opponent that challenges you and I thought our players grew up a little bit today.”
It might’ve been a costly game on the injury front for Tennessee as well. Receiver Von Pearson had to be helped off the field in the first half with an apparent ankle injury after starting the game with a strong four-catch, 71-yard performance. Starting tight end Ethan Wolf also had to be assisted off the field with a possible knee injury. Jones had no immediate update on that duo, but said he hoped to know more by Sunday.
After Arkansas State struck first, Tennessee responded with the next 17 points, building a 17-6 lead early in the second quarter thanks to a chip-shot field goal by Aaron Medley, a 10-yard touchdown pass from Justin Worley to Marquez North and a Jalen Hurd 4-yard touchdown run.
The Vols found a touch more room on the ground over the course of the game – averaging 3.7 yards per carry and finishing with 168 yard after getting just 110 and a 2.8 yards per carry average last week against Utah State.
Hurd led the way with 23 carries for 83 yards and scored his second career touchdown at UT, finding the end zone via the ground this week after catching a touchdown pass last week.
“I’ll have to see,” Jones said. “I know [Arkansas State] had a loaded box. We still don’t have many explosive runs and we have to get that corrected. It’s really hard to say right now. I thought our running backs ran hard, I thought we got some tough yards, but I’ll know a little more when I watch the video.
“I think we made strides as a running back group and the offense line did as well,” added Hurd. “I think we played well today but we definitely have to play better going to Oklahoma.”
The teams exchanged scores before the end of the first half, though another missed conversion attempt led to ASU dropping another point behind the pace, trailing 24-12 at the half.
The Vols capitalized on ASU’s mistake midway through the third quarter. Punt returner J.D. McKissic fumbled a punt return and UT’s LaDarrell McNeil jumped on it. Instead of the Red Wolves starting that drive with great field position, Tennessee got the ball. On the ensuing drive, Worley marched the team down the field, finding North for his second touchdown of the game, this time for 14 yards. Worley finished the day 22 of 38 for 247 yards with three total TDs and one interception – his first of the season. But the fumble that set up that drive loomed large for UT.
“Big, monumental,” Jones said of that fumble recovery. “They had some momentum. They were coming after the kick, we did a good job of (getting the punt off) and our team did a great job of running down and getting the football.
Though ASU did convert a fake punt earlier in the game, the Vols were, generally, ready for whatever was thrown at them. When ASU scored next, cutting it to 31-19, they went for an onside kick. After a loose-ball scrum, Tennessee tight end came up with the ball.
“Again, a game can be decided between two or three play, you never know when they’re going to occur. There were some critical stages in the game where we came up and made the plays we needed to.”
“We knew they were going to come out and do some of those things,” added linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who finished the game with six tackles, a sack and two TFLs.
The Vols never had an emphatic knockout punch after that point, but, thanks in large part to efficient work on third down on both sides of the ball, ASU never got any closer than 12 points down the stretch. A late 38-yard field goal by Medley capped the scoring on the day.
In total, the Vols converted 9 of 18 third downs and held ASU to just four third-down conversions on 17 attempts. Opponents have only converted seven out of 31 third downs this year so far against the Vols.
“I thought the whole key when you really look at it in a nutshell, when you summarize it, the first thing that comes down to it are first-down conversions,” Jones said. “We did a great job defensively of getting off the field on third downs and then we were able to possess the ball offensively on third down.”