Season opening games are haunting for all college football coaches.
It’s especially true for Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who is in his second season on The Hill.
Why? The Vols are the only team in the country that had to replace their entire offensive and defensive lines. Perilous if you reside in the SEC, where games are won and lost in the trenches.
Why? They had 17 freshmen on their two-deep roster. Youth can be served. It can also cause nightmares. Jones joked before the season opener against Utah State that he wasn’t sure his new players would turn left or right coming out of the tunnel and through the “T.”
Not to worry. They got it right, coming out with a lot of energy and flattening the Aggies, 38-7, in front of a sellout crowd in Neyland Stadium Sunday night.
They took a quick 14-0 lead after one quarter and going into halftime with a 17-0 lead.
It could have been more, but missed opportunities and a shanked field goal kept Utah State in the game.
“We had (chances) where we should have scored touchdowns,” Jones said as he left the field for intermission. “You can’t do that against good teams.”
It was Tennessee’s defense that threw a shutout in the first half. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State’s heralded run-pass senior, could not sustain scoring drives against a Vols defense that wasn’t perfect, but stingy enough to prevent Keeton and Co. from getting on the scoreboard until the game had already been decided.
They failed to cross mid-field in the first half, as Keeton was 10 of 18 for only 63 yards. He also suffered an interception. As a team Utah State only gathered 34 yards on 14 carries, an average of 2.6 yards.
Vols senior quarterback Justin Worley went on to complete 27-of-38 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He looked more in command than his Utah State counterpart.
After the first two possessions by both teams, the Vols had played 14 true freshmen. Vols fans better buy a game program if they want to know the players.
They kept having fun, sprinting to the opposite end of the field as the third quarter came to a close. Former Beech High running back Jalen Hurd got loose by taking a Worley pass 15 yards into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. He broke two arm tackles to score his first touchdown as a Vol. There will be more to follow.
Hurd went in the end zone standing up, pushing the margin to 31-0.
Through three quarters the Aggies were scoreless. They missed a 47-yard field goal attempt by kicker Jake Thompson. It was their only threat until the Aggies got on the scoreboard with a fourth quarter touchdown with 14:16 left in the game.
The Vols made it 24-0 in the third quarter, again relying on another fresh face in the program. This time is was junior college transfer Von Pearson breaking through two arm tackles on a third-and-three pass completion that gained 14 yards.
Pearson was working at a Bojangles fast food restaurant after high school in Newport News, Va. His grades were too low to get in college. He later went to Feather River junior college in California, got his academic requirements in order and accepted an offer from the Vols.
You’ll hear more of Pearson and other new faces as this season goes on. There is reason for optimism and Jones’ plan to put Tennessee football back on the map may be ahead of schedule.
They should gain some confidence going forward. After playing Arkansas State, they travel to Oklahoma. That will provide a chance to see just how much this team has grown up.