Tennessee learned a valuable lesson the hard way Thursday night.
They learned how to win an overtime game. After all, last season they found ways to lose four games by a total of 17 points.
This time the No. 9 ranked Vols scored a game-winning touchdown when quarterback Joshua Dobbs was hit hard and fumbled the ball. Nashville’s Jalen Hurd pounced on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown and the Vols defense prevented the Mountaineers from scoring.
“First of all I had to get the ball and secure it,’’ Hurd said. “After that, I was just happy.’’
It was a nerve-wracking 20-13 win for the Vols, who scored the final 17 points in the game.
“I will never apologize for the win,’’ Vols Coach Butch Jones said before he met with the Appalachian State team to congratulate them for their effort.
“We were determined. Everything went wrong for us, but good teams find ways to win.’’
The Vols were too big for their britches while Appalachian State came out swinging early and often.
They trailed the Sun Belt Conference team 13-6 going into the fourth quarter. Could so many experts have been that wrong about Tennessee’s football program in Jones’ fourth season?
The Vols played the first half like they had been overdosing on their preseason predictions. They were projected to win the SEC East, perhaps the SEC Championship.
That news evidently never reached across the state line into the mountains of Boone, N.C.
Hype doesn’t win football games. Players do.
Appalachian State’s head coach Scott Satterfield was the school’s offensive coordinator when the Mountaineers went into the Big House and upset Michigan on Sept. 1, nine years ago.
“This is what our guys signed up for,’’ Satterfield said at halftime as they led Tennessee, 13-3.
His freshman field goal kicker, Michael Rubino, missed an important extra point and later missed a 42-yard field goal. If he had connected, the Mountaineers would have pulled off an improbable upset.
In the first half the Vols didn’t play like a preseason top 10 team, especially one that was favored by three touchdowns.
If anything could go wrong for the Vols in the first half, it did.
Cameron Sutton fumbled a punt and the Mountaineers smothered the ball at Tennessee’s 36-yard line in the first quarter. A five-yard option keeper by quarterback Taylor Lamb drew first blood with 10:56 left in the first quarter.
It was 7-0 for the mighty Mountaineers.
The Vols thought they had a touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs to tight end Ethan Wolf later in the game, but it was waved off because the football hit the ground before Wolf gained control.
To add gas to the fire, the Vols leading tackler, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, was ejected from the game for targeting a punt returner on a helmet-to-helmet hit.
It was 7-3 after the first quarter, but Appalachian State was not finished.
A missed PAT was about the only mistake the Sun Belt Conference team made in the first half.
Running back Marcus Cox led the ground game (24-115) for the Mountaineers as he made what was supposed to be a strong Vols’ defensive unit looked lost at times.
But in the end, it was a win for the Vols, who will travel to Bristol to play Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway with an expected 150,000 fans in attendance.
The Vols know now they better be ready every game.
Joe Biddle is a wkrn.com. sports columnist. He is a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.