KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Nice debut, Butch.
Butch Jones, hired away from Cincinnati to rejuvenate a declining Tennessee football program, had the Vols ready for the season opener against outmanned Austin Peay State University before a sun-baked crowd of 97,169 on a near 90-degree Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols had no trouble christening Jones’ first game at Tennessee with an easy demolition of the Governors, 45-0, for the school’s 800th all-time victory.
“I’m very proud of these guys,” Jones said. “I thought we came out with a collective energy and once we gained the momentum we never relinquished it. I thought that was big.”
What was the opening day experience like for Jones?
“The greatest peace of mind that I have is how proud (players) to show me the Vol Walk,” he said, “and how proud they were to run through the ‘T.’ ”
Vol fans have taken to Jones, who has been on a whirlwind tour around the state and country selling Tennessee football since his arrival in Knoxville, and he took it all in Saturday.
“I wasn’t (nervous),” he said. “I thought we had our best practices of the year on Wednesday and Thursday. I thought our players were locked in.”
Only twice in 2012 did Tennessee surpass Saturday’s crowd, both 102,455 sellouts against SEC rivals Florida on Sept. 15 and Alabama on Oct. 20.
Jones was appreciative of the turnout and the school’s 800th win.
“I’d like to thank our student body,” he said. “Over 10,000 of our students were here. And I’m proud of our program for establishing a milestone with our 800th victory. There’s not many programs in the country that can say that, and that’s a tribute to all the great players who came before us and laid this tradition, this passion.”
Alabama (827) is the only other SEC team to break the 800-win barrier. Tennessee is eighth on the all-time FBS victory list, which is led by Michigan’s 903 victories.
Worley handled the Vols’ offense efficiently in the first half. He finished with 11-of-13 completions for 104 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. Under Worley’s direction, Tennessee had 317 yards of total offense in the first half.
The Vols finished with 447 yards of offense, a whopping 315 coming on the ground. At no point in 2012 did the Vols put up that much rushing yardage in a game.
Tailback Rajion Neal led all rushers with 141 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown in the first half – his rushing total was the Vols’ sixth all-time best before halftime.
“We talked about efficiency and I thought we executed well and I’m proud of that,” Worley said.
Worley, a junior from Rock Hill, S.C., had to feel good about his fourth career start, but he – and the Vols – must recognize the level of competition.
Western Kentucky, coached by former Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, knocked off Kentucky, spoiling coach Mark Stoops’ debut with the Wildcats, 35-26, in Nashville, Tenn.
Worley gave way to back-up quarterback Nathan Peterman in the second half. Peterman, a redshirt freshman – Jones said 18 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen played in the game, completed 4-of-8 passes for 28 yards.
“I thought we both executed pretty well,” Worley said. “I know it’s a pretty new Tennessee offensive style, but it will progress.”
Next up for Tennessee is Western Kentucky’s Hilltoppers here next week. The game will be televised by the SEC Network with a kick-off time of 12:21 p.m.
“We can’t overlook them at all,” Worley said.
After the Hilltoppers, Worley will face five Top 10 teams – Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama – interrupted by South Alabama on Sept. 28 – in a grueling stretch. The five ranked teams were a combined 59-8 in 2012. South Alabama, a program in just its fifth year, went 2-11.
So, Worley is two weeks shy of embarking on one of the biggest challenges a major-college quarterback can ever face.
But offensive lineman Antonio Richardson said Worley’s first-game experience will come in handy down the road.
“He controlled the line of scrimmage,” Richardson said. “That is the biggest thing you can ask from him. I didn’t really have to turn around to hear him. He yelled a lot and did well.”
This was the first meeting between Austin Peay (APSU) and Tennessee, but Jones has seen the Governors before, thrashing them, 72-10, in 2011.
It took the Vols just 1 minute, 13 seconds to put their first touchdown on the board, Neal hitting off tackle, breaking to the outside and running a career-long 47 yards for the game’s initial points.
“Honestly,” Neal said, “it was one of those nights. (The long run) was nice, I can’t lie. It was set up perfectly – the offensive line stretched it, I took my read, then the receivers helped me out by pinning one and I just walked it down the sideline.”
Less than two minutes later, Tennessee’s Daniel Hood picked off an Andrew Spivey pass, setting the Vols up at the Governors’ 25. On Play 3, tailback Marlin Lane ripped the mid-section of APSU’s defense for a 14-yard touchdown burst.
With 10:50 left in the opening quarter, the Vols were looking good and leading, 14-0.
Another three-and-out and a 51-yard punt gave Tennessee possession at the Vols’ 39. It took seven plays this time, but Worley hit Devrin Young on a 9-yard touchdown pass in the end zone, pushing the lead to 21-0.
For Young, it was his first career touchdown reception and just the second scoring toss by Worley, who won the starting job on Monday after a four-player battle through spring and fall camps.
After one quarter, UT had 188 yards of offense, 160 on the ground, while the Govs had 15 yards and one first down. The Vols had nine.
For APSU, which has won its season opener just five times in the past 19 seasons, the Govs fell into a deep hole against the Vols, who are still in the midst of a major rebuilding project – they’re on their fourth head coach in six years – with three successive seven-loss seasons, the first time in school history that has occurred.
It only grew deeper for APSU, which now has lost 17 straight road games.
“I wouldn’t say there were any troubles that caused us a loss on the road,” APSU linebacker Josh Owens said. “Sometimes you just get outmanned.”
Fourteen seconds in the second quarter, Worley connected with a wide open Alton Howard on an 11-yard strike in the end zone and Tennessee was cruising at 28-0.
Lane got his second touchdown – a 4-yard run – in the second quarter to cap an 80-yard, nine-play drive in 3 minutes, 14 seconds. It was Lane’s third multi-touchdown game of his career and the drive was set up after Austin Peay’s Walter Spears missed a 31-yard field goal.
“Our game plan was to come out and send a statement to everybody that was watching to see what (Tennessee) was all about,” Lane said. “I feel like we did that.”
The Vols’ offensive blitz was in good shape at 35-0.
Right before halftime, Worley, making his fourth career start, threw his third touchdown pass, this one a 3-yarder to tight end Brendan Downs to push Tennessee’s lead to 42-0, against a team that looked like it has only 18 winning seasons in the school’s 76-year history.
The 42 points were the most in the first half by the Vols since building a 42-7 lead over Memphis in 2009.
After Michael Palardy’s 37-yard field goal early in the third quarter, that gave Tennessee seven scores on as many possessions. The last time that happened was against Memphis in 2010.
The three-pointer was the Vols’ final points of the game because Jones turned the game over to reserves.
Saturday marked the third straight year that APSU, picked to finish last in the nine-team OVC, has opened against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent. In addition to the Cincinnati pummeling two years ago, the Govs lost to Western Kentucky, 49-10, in last season and the Vols this year.
Govs coach Kirby Cannon, his Govs shut out for the first time in 84 games, knew said Tennessee’s quick start crippled the visitors.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I thought our kids did a decent job of regrouping and played defense in the second half. They went out with a sense of purpose and recovered a little bit.”
With the win, UT moved to 7-0 against OVC foes.
Austin Peay 0 0 0 0 — 0
Tennessee 21 21 3 0 — 45
TENN – Rajion Neal 47 run (Michael Palardy kick), 12:43
TENN – Marlin Lane 14 run (Palardy kick), 10:50
TENN – Devrin Young 9 pass from Justin Worley (Palardy kick), 6:20
TENN – Alton Howard 11 pass from Worley (Palardy kick), 14:46
TENN – Lane 4 run (Palardy kick), 6:56
TENN – Brendon Downs 3 pass from Worley (Palardy kick), 0:53
TENN – FG Palardy 37, 13:02
First Downs 11 30
Rushes-Yards 27-79 52-315
Passing Yards 132 132
Total Yards 53-211 73-447
Com.-Att.-Int. 13-26-2 15-21-0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Punts.-Avg. 7-43.1 2-44.0
Penalties-Yds. 9-85 0-0
RUSHING — Austin Peay: Tim Phillips 8-38, Jacob Sexton 7-25, Terrence Oliver 5-18, Timarious Mitchell 1-7, Julian Franklin 2-minus 1, Omar Williams 2-minus 3, Andrew Spivey 2-minus 5; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 16-141, Deanthonie Summerhill 9-67, Marlin Lane 6-38, Tom Smith 9-29, Justin Worley 4-21, Alden Hill 3-9, Alton Howard 1-7, Devrin Young 1-6, Nathan Peterman 3-minus 3.
PASSING — Austin Peay: Andrew Spivey 11-22-94-1, Sexton 2-4-38-1; Tennessee: Worley 11-13-104-1, Peterman 4-8-28-0.
RECEIVING — Austin Peay: Darryl Clark 3-80, Rashaan Coleman 3-20, Javier Booker 3-20, Oliver 1-6, Chatman 1-5, Kamron Johnson 1-4, Tim Phillips 1-minus 3; Tennessee: Marquez North 3-33, Alton Howard 3-29, Johnathon Johnson 2-15, Paul Harris 1-15, Jacob Carter 1-14, Young 1-9, Josh Smith 1-9, Neal 1-7, Brendan Downs 1-3, A.J. Branisel 1-minus 2.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Austin Peay: Leron Eady 4-3 7, Johnathon Shuler 2-5 7, Josh Owens 3-3 6, Nii Lartey 2-4 6, Tyreon Clark 4-1 5; Tennessee: Byron Moore 3-2 5, Malik Foreman 3-0 3, LaTroy Lewis 3-0 3, Christian Harris 3-0 3, Brent Brewer 2-1 3, Marlon Walls 2-1 3.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)