KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s rebuilding mantra under Butch Jones is “brick by brick,” and the Volunteers laid the first brick of the 2014 season with a 38-7 win over Utah State on Sunday. Here are three thoughts from Tennessee’s victory:
1. Volunteers get defensive
Many expected quarterback Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to test the young Vols, who played 21 true freshmen on Sunday, a record for a Tennessee opener. That simply wasn’t the case in Knoxville, where Tennessee’s defense took a now-healthy Keeton to task and controlled the game from the onset.
Keeton, who returned from a torn ACL that shortened his season in 2013, couldn't help the Aggies find any rhythm in the game. In the first half, the Vols forced five Utah State punts, stuffed a fourth-down conversion attempt and picked off Keeton in two shutout quarters. Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson also forced a fumble on a Utah State kick return that led to a Vols touchdown.
At intermission the Aggies, averaging 3.1 yards per play, faced a 17-0 hole. Utah State failed to cross into Tennessee territory until early in the third quarter. By the time the Aggies found the end zone in the final period, the Volunteers had already built a 31-0 lead. Coach Matt Wells’ squad simply couldn’t keep drives alive and converted only three of 14 third downs.
If you’re Jones, you can sleep soundly after Tennessee’s defensive performance. This is a squad that finished 11th in the SEC in total defense in 2013. It lost every starter along its defensive line. But key veterans like Johnson, who forced a fumble and grabbed an interception, and fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt did a sound job of disrupting Keeton. That’s a big reason why 17 of UT’s 38 points came off turnovers.
Though it’s unclear how good Utah State will be in the long run, this performance is a nice building block for Tennessee before the Vols embark on a brutal schedule.
2. Tennessee's offensive protection
The relationship between a team’s offensive line and its running backs is a marriage that must work to build a successful offense. That marriage might need time to grow for Tennessee.
The Vols’ offensive line, which also lost all five starters from a year ago, struggled to protect quarterback Justin Worley and open up lanes for the run game. Utah State sacked Worley twice in the first half as Tennessee limped to just 2.6 yards per carry before intermission. Primary tailbacks Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd combined for just 3.2 yards per carry as Worley shouldered the load for the offense with the passing game. More was expected from the 6-3, 225-pound Hurd, especially, as he is a former five-star recruit and has the talent to spark the run game immediately.
The Vols’ rushing troubles weren’t totally unexpected considering the roster’s inexperienced line. But had Worley not recorded a strong first performance – 27-of-38 passing for 273 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions – Tennessee’s offense would’ve resembled last season’s lackluster unit. Discipline was an issue, too, with a number of false start penalties from the likes of tackle Kyler Kerbyson.
Tennessee escaped a true test on Sunday despite being one-dimensional on offense. But SEC defensive lines will make things much tougher from here on out. This offensive line must develop sooner rather than later.
3. Utah State's Keeton needs a little help
There’s no doubt Tennessee’s defense stifled Keeton, who can scramble for game-changing plays. But Utah State’s other playmakers didn’t do Keeton any favors.
Keeton completed just 18 of his 35 passes, and several Aggies dropped catchable balls that could’ve kept drives alive. Utah State’s run game failed to take off either, and finished the night averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Keeton managed just 12 net yards on eight rushes, but the Aggies' offensive line didn't give the quarterback time against Tennessee's pass rush.
Keeton is the kind of player who earns darkhorse Heisman hype, and rightfully so, but no player can carry an offense by himself. The trouble for Keeton is that Utah State returns the fewest total starters (seven) in the Mountain West, including only three on offense. We don’t yet know who can help Keeton carry the load. That’s a question the Aggies must answer.