KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee, trying to snap out of the doldrums of four consecutive losing seasons, started its 2014 campaign in fine fashion Sunday night before a season opening sellout crowd of 102,445 that endured a heavy rain story 30 minutes prior to kickoff.
And senior quarterback Justin Worley, who missed the final four games in 2013 after undergoing thumb surgery, was spot on in his first start since the Alabama game last season.
Worley passed for 273 yards – in one stretch he completed 13 consecutive passes in the second half – and three touchdowns, Tennessee scored twice in a 14-second span of the first quarter and the Vols routed Utah State, 38-7, at Neyland Stadium in a game televised by the new SEC Network.
“Justin was calm and collected,” Vols coach Butch Jones said, “and he acted like he’d been there before. He was kind of a calming presence on the sideline.”
Worley had touchdown tosses to tight end Brendan Downs, wideout Von Pearson and running back Jalen Hurd on plays covering 12, 14 and 15 yards. He completed a career-high 27 of 38 passes – with a long of 38 yards to Josh Smith – and threw to 11 different receivers, five of them freshmen.
“We have some playmakers across the board,” said Worley, who beat out Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs for the starting job in preseason camp. “From tight ends to receivers and running backs, you can’t focus on one guy. There are several guys we can attack you with.
“It goes back to my confidence level, the confidence I have in these guys and the offensive scheme.”
Worley, perhaps playing his finest game as a Vol in front of the biggest home opening crowd since 106,311 watched the Southern Miss game in 2007, helped Tennessee amass 383 yards of total offense on 67 plays, and completed his first 13 attempts in the second half when the Vols outscored the Aggies, 21-7.
Worley’s hot streak was the fourth-longest in Tennessee history, 11 behind the record set by Tee Martin at South Carolina in 1998, the Vols’ national championship season.
While Worley was coming back from thumb surgery, Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, seeing his first action since tearing the left anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last October, was harassed and bothered all night by the aggressive Tennessee defense.
Keeton, who wears a brace on the injured knee, passed for 144 yards, completing 18 of 35 attempts, and was intercepted twice. He threw for the Aggies’ only touchdown – a 37-yard strike to Hunter Sharp – with 14:16 left in the game.
“I thought he moved around well, as far as his health and everything,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “He was right on some things, wrong on some things and he tried to overcompensate. Several times we had guys running open and he’s getting flushed (out of the pocket).”
Keeton has a reputation of being able to make plays from nothing, but the Vols limited him to 12 yards on eight carries and sacked him once.
“The first thing on our list on quarterback points was keeping him in the pocket,” junior linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “He slipped out a couple of times, but as a defense we did a good job, especially with pressure.”
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson was a thorn in the Aggies side all night and contributed to Keeton’s erratic night as well.
After Alton Howard’s 8-yard run started the Vols’ scoring, Johnson caused a fumble on the ensuing kickoff – freshman Todd Kelly Jr., recovered the ball at Utah State’s 12 – Worley found tight end Brendan Downs on a 12-yard touchdown 14 seconds after Howard hit paydirt.
It was Johnson’s second career caused fumble. The All-Southeastern Conference linebacker, intercepted Keeton in the fourth quarter to set up Marlin Lane’s 7-yard touchdown run to cap the Vols’ scoring.
“That was a great feeling,” Johnson said of his first career interception, “but I had my mind set on the end zone. I messed up and couldn’t get there, but it was a nice catch.”
With the victory – it was the first meeting between the two schools – the Vols won their sixth straight season-opening game and 18th in the last 20 dating to 1995. It was also Tennessee’s 15th win in 16 games against current Mountain West Conference teams, that one loss being an earth-shaking 13-7 shocker against Wyoming in 2008.
After the two first-quarter scores, the Vols scored only one other time in the first half, that coming on freshman Aaron Medley’s 36-yard field goal with 11:55 left in the second quarter.
They wouldn’t score again until Worley connected with Pearson, a junior from Newport News, Va., stretching the lead to 24-0.
Worley’s final touchdown pass was a screen that Hurd, the state’s No. 1 prospect in Tennessee and No. 7 running back nationally his senior year at Beech High School, early in the fourth quarter.
“I saw the opportunity to make a cutback (after the catch),” Hurd said. “Justin made a great pass, I had great blocking downfield and I just tried to make a play. It was crazy when I scored. I was so happy.”
Then, Utah State, one of only nine Football Bowl Subdivision teams to win at least 20 games the past two seasons, had its lone bright offensive moment of the game. Keeton directed a 75-yard, two-play drive that took only 30 seconds capped by Hunter Sharp’s 37-yard touchdown reception that averted a shutout.
“We had every intention of coming in here and competing,” Wells said. “I think we did for a while, but we’re used to competing for a heck of a lot longer.”
Utah State 0 0 0 7 — 7
Tennessee 14 3 7 14 – 38
TENN — Alton Howard 8 run (Aaron Medley kick), 9:23
TENN – Brendan Downs 12 pass from Justin Worley (Medley kick), 9:09
TENN —FG Medley 36, 11:55
TENN — Von Pearson 14 pass from Worley (Medley kick), 5:31
TENN — Jalen Hurd 15 pass from Worley (Medley kick), 14:51
UTST – Hunter Sharp 37 pass from Chuckie Keeton (Nick Diaz kick), 14:16
TENN – Marlin Lane 7 run (Medley kick), 10:36
First Downs 11 24
Rushes-Yards 24-100 39-110
Passing Yards 144 273
Att-Com-Int 18-35-2 28-40-0
Total Yards 244 383
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 0-0
Punts.-Avg. 6-32.7 6-28.8
Penalties-Yds. 5-42 6-40
RUSHING — Utah State: Jojo Natson 2-47, Joe Hill 9-22, LaJuan Hunt 4-17, Chuckie Keeton 8-12, Rashad Hall 1-2; Tennessee: Marlin Lane 11-41, Jalen Hurd 11-29, Justin Worley 6-14, Neiko Creamer 4-11, Alton Howard 2-9, Devrin Young 1-6, Deanthonie Summerhill 1-minus 5.
PASSING — Utah State: Keeton 18-35-2 144; Tennessee: Worley 27-38-0 273, Nathan Peterman 1-1-0 0, Howard 0-1-0 0.
RECEIVING — Utah State: Brandon Swindall 5-37, Hunter Sharp 2-37, Ronald Butler 3-29, Natson 3-18, Wyatt Houston 2-13, Devonte Robinson 1-9, Hill 2-1; Tennessee: Josh Smith 3-48, Jason Croom 2-41, Marquez North 4-38, Howard 6-37, Von Pearson 3-27, Ethan Wolf 3-26, Josh Malone 2-26, Hurd 2-16, Brendan Downs 1-12, Lane 1-2, Daniel Helm 1-0.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)