BRISTOL, Tenn. – In NASCAR terminology, you could say the Vols (2-0) stalled out when the green flag waived. More importantly though, they picked it up around turn one and cruised home for a 45-24 win to take the checkered flag in front of the biggest crowd in football history – a virtually packed house of 156,900 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
By the time the fireworks went off and the confetti fell at the World’s Fastest Half Mile, much of the colossal crowd had already dispersed. Tennessee pulled away in the second half – or perhaps it was Virginia Tech that fumbled it away.
The Hokies (1-1) put it on the ground five times – leading to five turnovers. Safety Micah Abernathy scooped three of them up – setting a UT single-game record in the process.
“We turned the ball over entirely too many times,” said Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente. “At times we lacked discipline out there, which is very disappointing, and falls on me…We’re inadequate in ball security to say the least right now.”
One fumble in particular seemed to turn the game around after the Vols’ slow start.
With the Hokies up 14-0 after the first quarter, a miscommunication on a snap led to a loose ball that UT hopped on inside the 10-yard line. One play later, Joshua Dobbs lobbed a fade to Jauan Jennings to put Tennessee on the board – and to change the complexion of the contest.
“We didn’t start like we wanted to, but really liked the way we responded,” Butch Jones said. “We had a big turnover and were able to capitalize off that.”
That score started the Vols on a 31-0 run over the next 25 minutes of game time. It was a combination of Bob Shoop and the defense settling in after a rough first quarter, and Joshua Dobbs stepping up with his feet and his arms.
UT’s senior quarterback, who was ineffective at times in the opener against Appalachian State, completed 10-of-19 passes for just 91 yards, but found the end zone on three of them with just one interception. He followed the pass to Jennings with a touchdown lob to Josh Malone for 38 yards on the next possession to tie it at 14 with 9:32 left in the first half.
An Aaron Medley field goal and a perfectly-executed, end-of-the-half drive capped off by a 5-yard touchdown run by Dobbs gave the Vols a 24-14 edge at the half.
Dobbs added a 27-yard touchdown run to go along with a 23-yard TD pass to Alvin Kamara in the second half to help the Vols pull away late. Running back Jalen Hurd finished the evening with 99 yards on 22 carries, while sophomore running back John Kelly punched in a late score to get the Vols to 45 in the fourth quarter.
The Vols, after struggling on the offensive line last week, used at least three different offensive line combinations during the first three quarters to help shore up some of those issues. Jack Jones saw extensive work at guard, with Dylan Wiesman sliding to center in that look.
“We were finally able to run the football, and play Tennessee-style football,” Butch Jones said after the Vols piled up 239 yards on the ground in one of the most unique atmospheres in the history of college football.
“It was an incredible experience for our student-athletes,” Jones said of the record-setting evening. “Something they’ll remember for a lifetime…just an unbelievable spectacle.”
“It definitely lived up to the hype,” Dobbs added. “Absolutely insane.”
Final stats: pic.twitter.com/x5eqWhWpxk
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 11, 2016