KNOXVILLE — One year ago this weekend, Justin Worley and his Northwestern High School Trojans faced a huge test. Visiting Gaffney High School was coming to 8,738-seat Rock Hill District 3 Stadium. The Region III-AAAA title dangled like carrot. It was a big one in the town of Rock Hill, S.C.; population 42,980.
As usual, Worley was the star. In the midst of a heroic senior year, the 6-foot-3 quarterback completed 37 of 48 passes for 424 yards and five touchdowns. The Trojans stormed to the region title with a 42-28 win.
One year later and 230 miles northwest, Worley stepped onto the lush green stage of Neyland Stadium. A lot has happened since Halloween weekend 2010. On Saturday night, Worley, now a freshman at Tennessee, attempted to stop the bleeding of the Volunteers' three-game losing streak. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley pointed to the 18-year-old to give UT its first SEC win of the season before the calendar flips to November.
He was asking a lot.
When the calendar flips on Monday, Tennessee’s record will sit at 0-5 in the SEC and 3-5 overall. In trying to to knock off No. 14 South Carolina, Worley proved that sometimes, freshmen are freshmen. The Vols fell 14-3 to the Gamecocks (7-1, 5-1).
“He just hasn’t had the work,” said Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. “He’s been a (third-string quarterback). That’s what we forget. For eight months he’s been a three, and then for two weeks he was a two. It’s tough. I don’t know what else to say.”
Over the past four weeks, the Vols have played duck-duck-goose at the quarterback position. First, Tyler Bray suffered a fractured thumb against Georgia. He was replaced by senior Matt Simms, who started the past two weeks. Late in last week’s loss to Alabama, Simms was pulled in favor of Worley.
This week, Worley was the goose. By the end of the game, though, he was on the bench watching Simms.
“We’re a mess offensively,” said a chagrined Dooley of the Vols’ 186 total yards of offense on Saturday.
When you ask a freshman to give you a spark, you should at least give him a match. Instead, Tennessee handed Worley a bucket of water. A dropped touchdown pass by Da’Rick Rogers before halftime was painful. The Vols’ paltry 35 rushing yards was worse.
“We just didn’t help him,” Dooley said.
Worley was not made available for postgame comments. He had a long enough night as it was.
The nerves simmered early. The lights high above Neyland cast a shadow underneath Worley’s every step. The swell of noise from 96,655 fans swirled in the brisk autumn air. It was indeed “Football time in Tennessee” and he was in the middle of it all.
This was Rocky Top — not Rock Hill.
The magnitude of the moment stirred jitters. Over the course of the first quarter, some throws drew groans. Worley missed Rogers on a crossing pattern by about 10 feet on his first throw. Then he tossed a fluttering duck that hit fullback Ben Bartholomew in the shoulder. (It probably should have been caught. It also should have been a better throw.) On second and goal from the South Carolina 4-yard line, a dangerous bullet to DeAnthony Arnett was thrown between a pair of Gamecock defenders. On third and goal, Worley sailed a pass high and left to an open Rogers in the back of the endzone.
Nonetheless, Tennessee led 3-0 early.
“He came out there really confident, eye-to-eye with everyone” Arnett said.
Whether the butterflies settled or the cold feet warmed up, Worley soon began to compose himself. Gradually, every muscle in his body seemed to unclench. He hit Rogers on a 7-yard out pattern. He found tight end Mychal Rivera for a 10-yard gain on third and 11.
By the time the first quarter ended, Worley was 4-of-11 passing for 28 yards. Progress was slowly being made. The spirals got tighter.
After the Vols feel behind 7-3 with 7 minutes, 46 seconds remaining till halftime, Worley threw a 25-yard pass on a zip-line to Arnett for a first down. Two plays later, on third and 1, a perfect 44-yard teardrop to Rogers slipped right through the star receiver’s fingers in the endzone. It was a costly key play.
Following a failed onside kick to start the second half by Tennessee, Prentiss Waggner gift-wrapped moment and field position for the Vols’ offense. The junior cornerback intercepted South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and galloped 54 yards to the USC 2-yard line.
It was here, at the worst possible time, that Worley looked like a freshman. With energy churning through Neyland, he tried to thread a dart but didn’t hit cork. The first interception of his young career fell on the stat sheet and gave the Gamecocks the ball on their own 2.
South Carolina took full advantage — for exactly 11 minutes and 35 seconds. The Gamecocks rattled off an exhausting 20-play, 98-yard drive from end zone to end zone. Shaw ended the saga with a 5-yard touchdown run. The entire time, Worley stood stone-faced on the sideline.
Another opportunity arose with the Vols trailing 14-3. Following a South Carolina fumble at its own 28 early in the fourth quarter, the fans saw a last glimmer of hope. It was answered with another freshman mistake. One play. One throw into double-coverage. Another interception.
The eyeballs in Neyland that didn’t glaze over most certainly looked to Matt Simms on the Tennessee sidelines.
When the Vols took over again with 10:15 remaining in the game, Worley was 10 of 26 for 105 yards with two interceptions and a 38.5 quarterback rating.
Simms trotted onto the field.
“Justin, he had a tough day out there,” Dooley said. “A couple interceptions in the red area that he has to learn from. It’s hard, you know? He struggled administratively.”
In other words, he was a freshman.
“It just takes some time,” Dooley concluded. “He’s got to practice. He’s got a lot of practice ahead of him. But he’ll be OK. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to win a game. That’s the trick.”
Duck, duck ...