KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Maybe Tennessee did learn something from an embarrassing loss at No. 2 Oregon two weeks ago.
In that game, Tennessee scored first and then watched helplessly while the Ducks ran off 59 straight points.
On Saturday at sun-splashed Neyland Stadium, visiting South Alabama took the opening kickoff and drove 82 yards for a touchdown in 2 minutes, 35 seconds.
The Vols then scored 31 consecutive points to build a 31-7 lead.
Unlike Oregon, which just kept scoring, the Vols lost their focus and had to withstand a furious South Alabama comeback in the second half before pulling out a hair-raising, 31-24, non-conference victory before 87,266 fans.
Lessons can be learned each week, it turns out.
“I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “This team found a way to win.”
Said South Alabama coach Joey Jones, “We were 8 yards from making unbelievable history.”
South Alabama had one last crack at tying the game with less than 2 minutes left.
Quarterback Ross Metheny’s fourth-down pass from the Vols’ 14-yard line, was affected when Corey Vereen clobbered him as he delivered the football and defensive back Brian Randolph came up with an end-zone interception to seal the win.
“(Up-front pressure) definitely helped us because the pressure is big,” said Randolph, who now has three interceptions this season, all in the end zone. “We made the quarterback feel uncomfortable and he got erratic and threw us one.”
The win, Tennessee’s 11th in a row at home against a non-conference opponent, was a mixture of a sterling running attack, stout-hearted defense and more frustrating play from quarterback Justin Worley.
Worley, yanked from his starting role for the Florida game, was back in the No. 1 slot and after a couple hiccups early, operated the Vols’ spread option with moments of excellence.
Then Worley fell back into old habits and threw three interceptions – two in the end zone – to negate solid scoring opportunities that could have easily turned the game into the runaway everyone expected.
“It hurts pretty bad,” Worley said of the picks. “It sucks. It rattles you a little bit. It’s hard to bounce back from that.”
After South Alabama – a fifth-year program – scored the quick touchdown, Tennessee’s defense made adjustments and picked off a pass and forced five consecutive punts to put the Jaguars of the Sun Belt Conference in their place.
Conversely, after a punt capped the Vols’ first possession, they got a field goal and three consecutive touchdowns before Worley went errant with interceptions on three of the next four possessions, a bad skein dotted with poor decisions that stretched into the third quarter.
Worley’s interception late in the second quarter was the worst of all. He threw into triple coverage and probably caused a ripple effect.
“I don’t know if knocked him off course, but he’s got to throw the football away in that situation,” Jones said.
In that span, Worley’s decision-making was clearly questionable and has thrown five interceptions in the last six quarters, including two in last week’s loss to Florida.
Worley finished with 204 passing yards, completing 20-of-36 attempts.
But when Worley cooled off in the second half and started producing three-and-outs rather than first downs or touchdowns, Jones stuck with the junior from Rock Hill, S.C. Jones never came close to using one of his two freshmen signal callers – Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs.
“When they’re ready to play, they’ll be ready to play,” Jones said. “If I put one of those freshmen in and we lost the game, you all (media) would be sitting here saying to me, ‘Why did you put the freshman in?’ That’s the beauty of your pen, the power of second-guessing, so I’ve learned to go with my gut instinct.
“At the end of the game I believed in Justin.”
The Jaguars (2-2) turned Worley’s third pick into a touchdown, cutting the Vols’ lead to 31-14. South Alabama trimmed three more points off its deficit with Aleem Sunanon’s 24-yard field goal with 4:05 left in the third quarter.
South Alabama’s defense forced a three-and-out late in the third quarter and came right back down the field, threatening to make what looked like a safe-and-secure blowout into a one-score game.
But Sunanon missed a 41-yard field goal to the left, preserving the Vols’ 14-point lead with 14:36 left.
Tennessee put Michael Palardy in field-goal range from 47 yards. The Vols faked the kick, and Michael Palardy took a pitch from holder Tyler Drummer and was headed toward the end zone, but a false start penalty negated the play.
Then Palardy tried one from 52, only to miss it terribly and South Alabama’s Roman Buchanan returned it 52 yards to the Tennessee 29. The ugly-duck kick barely went 10 yards.
“We had practiced it all week,” Jones said. “They were in an overload situation and we had it. (Then) he kicked the holder’s hand when it got under the football.”
Six plays later, Cris Dinham scored from the 3 and put the Vols in a bind at 31-24 with 8:55 on the clock.
The Vols went nowhere, but the never-say-die Jaguars mounted another impressive drive.
Metheny was spot-on with his passes and backs were running over everybody, including one in-the-way referee.
Metheny hit Danny Woodson for a 5-yard gain to the Vols’ 14. Then it was a 7-yard gainer to the 7. Metheny kept for 1 yard. Metheny was sacked by Corey Miller at the 14, setting up a third-and-14.
South Alabama called a timeout with 2:19 left.
Metheny passed to Jereme Jones for 6 yards to the 8.
Another timeout. The clock showed 1:58.
Metheny dropped back, scanning the field for an open receiver.
Corey Vereen drew a bead on him, forcing a split-second early throw. Tennessee’s Brian Randolph makes a game-saving interception in the back of the end zone, saving one of the biggest upsets in Tennessee’s storied 117-year history.
“They are a pretty good football team,” Metheny said of the Vols. “To hang in there with them and be in a position to win the football game at the end, we’re proud of that. But it’s a tough one to swallow.”
Metheny wound up going 21-of-42 for 234 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions – that gives Tennessee’s defense 11 this season.
LaDarrell McNeil and Brent Brewer also had interceptions and Randolph registered a game-high 12 tackles.
Metheny rushed for 67 yards and two scores, including a 32-yarder to cap the Jaguars’ opening drive.
In the end, the Vols dodged a bullet to post the win.
“You can’t say we would have done this a year or so ago,” linebacker Dontavis Sapp said, “but you can tell the team is really coming together ready to fight and compete on each down no matter what the circumstances.”
Still, South Alabama won the second half scoring, 17-7, and that didn’t go unnoticed on defensive tackle Daniel McCullers.
“They just rolled down the field on us,” he said. “We shouldn’t let that happen.”
While threatened with a humiliating loss, the Vols now can head into next week’s SEC showdown against nationally ranked Georgia with a little better mentality. Georgia knocked off LSU, 41-37, the Dogs’ second win over a Top 10 team this season.
Tennessee finished with 482 yards of total offense, including 278 on 37 rushes.
South Alabama, had 392 yards of offense and ran 79 plays – six more than Tennessee – with a quick-tempo that Vols coach Butch Jones envisions his team using more effectively in time.
Tailback Rajion Neal gained a career-high 169 yards rushing on 25 carries. His 53-yard run was a career-high burst.
“He gave us some big splash plays and took care of the football,” Jones said.
Marlin Lane went for 66 yards on just five carries, including a career-long 54-yarder, the longest by a Vol back this season – that run was Tennessee’s longest by a back since Tauren Poole burst 59 yards against Alabama in 2010.
And it was the first time since Cedric Houston broke off runs of 54 and 65 yards against South Carolina in 2004 that Tennessee had two 50-plus runs in the same game.
In between the poor throws, Worley threw touchdowns of 2 and 29 yards to A.J. Branisel and Josh Smith, respectively, the first time two true freshmen had scoring receptions in the same game since Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers – both now on National Football League rosters – did it against Memphis in 2010.
South Alabama 3 0 10 7 – 24
Tennessee 10 14 7 0 – 31
SA – Ross Metheny 32 run (Aleem Sunanon kick), 12:25
UT – FG Michael Palardy 40, 9:49
UT – A.J. Branisel 2 pass from Justin Worley (Palardy kick), 2:32
UT – Josh Smith 29 pass from Worley (Palardy kick), 13:16
UT – Lane 2 run (Palardy kick), 10:16
UT – Neal 11 run (Palardy kick), 12:28
SA – Metheny 5 run (Sunanon kick), 8:51
SA – FG Sunanon 24, 4:05
SA – Cris Dinham 3 run (Sunanon kick), 8:55
ATT – 87,266
First Downs 22 24
Rushes-Yards 28-135 37-278
Passing Yards 257 204
Total Yards 79-392 73-482
Com.-Att.-Int. 24-51-3 20-36-3
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-0
Punts.-Avg. 5-42.0 4-45.5
Penalties-Yds. 5-28 8-43
RUSHING — South Alabama: Ross Metheny 10-67, Jay Jones 10-36, Cris Dinham 7-33, Team1-minus 1; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 25-169, Marlin Lane 5-66, Tom Smith 3-27, Justin Worley 3-18, Team 1-minus 2.
PASSING — South Alabama: Metheny 21-42-2-234, Brandon Bridge 3-9-1-23; Tennessee: Justin Worley 20-36-3-204.
RECEIVING — South Alabama: Shavarez Smith 4-83, Bryant Lavender 4-55, Wes Saxton 3-40, Danny Woodson 5-39, Jereme Jones 3-11, Dinham 1-3; Tennessee: Jason Croom 3-50, Josh Smith 3-40, Alton Howard 3-36, Marquez North 2-20, Brendan Downs 2-20, Neal 3-14, Lane 2-14, Vincent Dallas 1-8, A.J. Branisel 1-2.
TACKLES (UA-A) – South Alabama: Enrique Williams 5-3 8, Terrell Brigham 5-1 6, Quadarius Ford 4-2 6, Maleki Harris 2-4 6, Antonio Carter 3-2 5, Montavius Williams 2-3 5, Alex Page 1-4 5, Roman Buchanan 1-4 5; Tennessee: Brian Randolph 7-5 12, Jaron Toney 5-3 8, A.J. Johnson 3-5 8, Cameron Sutton 5-2 7, Daniel McCullers 3-3 6, Dontavis Sapp 2-3 5, Corey Miller 4-0 4, Justin Coleman 4-0 4.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)