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Tennessee 38 Utah State 7 - Baby's First Steps

The young Vols made an opening statement not on the strength of its new freshmen, but the backs of upperclassmen who've seen it all.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We said going in that we knew so little about these Vols, with all their new faces in so many places, no outcome should be truly surprising because no one truly knew enough to be surprised.  Some predicted an orange-tinted blowout, which is joyfully what we got.  But I'm not sure any of us predicted it this way.

Maybe Utah State isn't the team we thought they were.  Time will tell.  But coming in there was a thin line and more reason to be worried about these Aggies than just about any mid-major we've seen.  Utah State was preparing Heisman material for quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who completed 69.4% of his passes at 7.1 yards per attempt before injury last season.  He threw two interceptions in 196 attempts in 2013.  Tonight he threw two in 35, completing just 18 of them for 4.1 YPA.

Of all the fantasy blowout scenarios we played out in our heads, how many of them featured the defense, not the offense, leading the way?

Utah State gained 244 yards of offense and just 4.1 yards per play.  In a weird and still-depressing statistic, those two numbers are Tennessee's best against an FBS opponent since...the 2011 loss to Kentucky.  But if you want to find a better performance by a Vol defense in victory, you have to go back to Lane Kiffin's 2009 Georgia win (241 yards, 3.8 per play).

That game, five long years ago, was validation for the new coach at the time.  What happened between then and now left a lot more work for Butch Jones.  So a night like tonight is less about total validation for a head coach, and more about the first steps of a young football team.

Follow The Leaders

All this talk about freshmen, and you have to wonder how some of the upperclassmen took it.  It was justifiably easy for us to get caught up in the hype, especially when you're winning more in recruiting than you have on the field in the last six years.  But Team 118's first steps were taken tonight not by its superstar freshmen, but its battle-tested veterans.

When we made our choices for the most important player of the week on Wednesday, all of us geniuses left out Tennessee's most celebrated player.  Oops.

Let me attempt to make it up by saying how proud of and happy for A.J. Johnson I was tonight.  There are so few upperclassmen who play headlining roles on this team, and several of them have lost large portions of their career due to injury.  But A.J. Johnson carries the most metaphorical scars.  He's been on the field the most, including that day in Lexington as a freshman.  He was the one in the end zone when the Vols scored their final touchdown against Florida in 2012, in that short moment when we all thought the dark days were over.  He was there with Sal Sunseri, part of the worst defense in school history.  And he was there last year, trying to lead and doing so many things so well, but also getting picked on in pass coverage in very specific ways.

Tonight, he was the best player on the field by a mile.  Your questions about his presence on special teams were answered with an immediate forced fumble.  Your questions about his pass coverage were answered with his first career interception, which was almost immediately followed by what should have been his second interception.  Your questions about his heart and leadership are non-existent.  A.J. Johnson played All-American football tonight.

Right behind the senior middle linebacker in tonight's accolades:  the senior quarterback.

Some may still be drawn to the Georgia game last year because of the opponent, but for my money this was Justin Worley's best game in a Tennessee uniform:  27 of 38, 273 yards, 7.2 YPA, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, zero almost-interceptions.  You could tell Worley had to adjust to an offensive line giving him less time to throw, taking a couple sacks early.  But when he did, he was as sharp as we've ever seen him, at one point completing a dozen passes in a row and ultimately connecting with ten different receivers.  It's one thing to do that to Austin Peay.  It's another to do it to a team with a defensive reputation like Utah State.  Worley wasn't flashy and didn't have to be.  He was instead the best version of what we realistically hoped he could be:  run the offense, stay out of trouble, get the ball to the play-makers.

Speaking of which, Cameron Sutton is only a sophomore but clearly qualifies as both a veteran and a play-maker on this team.  Last year the Vols got abused on wide receiver screens.  Not tonight.  I can't remember how many times I said, "Make the tackle..." with concern in my voice in the stadium tonight when Keeton went with a quick strike and Sutton was left one-on-one.  But every time, Sutton made the play.  And when the Aggies tried to test him downfield, he scored an interception.  One game into his sophomore season Sutton looks like a weekly, serious difference maker in Tennessee's secondary.

Having so much youth is so much easier when you've got veterans who will lead, in presence and in play.  Tonight the Vols' best players were names and faces we already knew.

Lil Jon goes 11 of 14 on 3rd Down

Last year the Vols were 92nd nationally in third down conversions allowed, giving up a first down 42.5% of the time.  Tonight Tennessee gave up a first down just 21.4% of the time, and that last conversion came in the final minutes against the backups.

How do you get better on third down?  Get better on first and second down.  Third down for what tonight:

  • 3rd and 9, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 5, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 4, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 4, 13 yard pass
  • 3rd and 1, run no gain
  • 3rd and 9, Keeton 6 yard scramble
  • 3rd and 11, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 15, 16 yard pass
  • 3rd and 3, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 14, 2 yard pass
  • 3rd and 10, interception
  • 3rd and 15, sack
  • 3rd and 6, incomplete pass
  • 3rd and 3, 9 yard pass
That's an average of 7.7 yards to gain on third down.  The Vol defense was good in the spectacular tonight, creating turnovers and getting a fourth down stop.  But they were also good in the every-down, allowing only a couple of busts that cost them on Utah State's one touchdown drive.  You don't put Keeton so far below his usual numbers without effective pressure and coverage on the vast majority of the snaps.  What we saw from the Vols on third down tonight was a lot of fun, but what we saw from them on every down was even more promising.

Baby's Next Steps

One true mark of the Vols being on their way "back" is the complaint department in a win of this magnitude.  So here it is:
  • Couldn't we have won by even more?  The Vols missed every deep ball they threw, whiffed on a well-designed trick play that should've been six, and generally failed to capitalize on the defense's tremendous play from 14-0 six minutes into the game until 17-0 with Aaron Medley's field goal at the end of the first half.  I believe Utah State is a good football team.  I believe we could've won by even more.
  • We have to do better than 39 carries for 110 yards (2.8 per).  Everyone knows this.  Marlin Lane (11 for 41) and Jalen Hurd (11 for 29) couldn't find any room for consistency or even a run longer than nine yards.  Again, we think Utah State was good, especially up front defensively.  But the Vols are very inexperienced on the offensive line, and failed to generate any real push for the run game much of the night.
  • This isn't really a complaint, but we all got several brief and anxiety-filled glimpses of how close we could be to going back to on-field issues due to depth.  I would argue the three places Tennessee can least afford injury are defensive tackle, linebacker, and offensive line.  And in order, Jordan Williams, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Jacob Gilliam all went down with injury tonight.  Williams and JRM returned and made big plays, and everyone exhaled.  Gilliam didn't return as far as I could tell, though he did walk off under his own power.  Throw in Matt Darr for good measure, and you've got four very near misses where Tennessee cannot afford it.  The starting 22 may be much improved, but the entire roster still has some holes in the second team in spots.
Know this, though.  If you're like me, you've spent all summer waiting for this night.  There may even be some among the fanbase who just don't get invested in the basketball team in the spring, and so perhaps you've been waiting for this night impatiently since late November.  And it gets here with all its pageantry and, for the Vols in this year's opener, all this danger.  The thing you've waited so long for can become the thing that instantly takes something from you.  Ask Clemson or Wisconsin today.  Ask Utah State.

Tonight, Team 118 took its first steps, and looks ahead of schedule which would really be par for the course for Butch Jones.  The Vols have flaws, they have holes, and they can play better.  In six days another team with a pulse will come to Knoxville, and we'll see about taking another step.  But tonight, this is a win to savor.  We waited all summer with hope, and tonight, in the season's first and most important game, hope made itself known to those wearing orange.  This is a win to be celebrated.  And then it's on to the next one, the second one becoming the season's most important game.  We're still too young to worry about where all of this is going right now, or about anything other than Arkansas State.

But we're not too young to win.  And after the last six years, all of us are too old not to enjoy it.  A lot.

Go Vols.