KNOXVILLE – The outcome was never really in doubt – even before the Vols kicked off their 117th season of football and their first under new coach Butch Jones on Saturday night against an undermanned Austin Peay squad that has struggled to compete at the FCS level in recent years.
But Tennessee took care of business early anyways, piling up 317 yards – 213 on the ground – in the first half on its way to a dominating 45-0 victory over the Governors (0-1), gaining the program’s 800th victory.
“There's not many programs in the country that can stay that, and that's a tribute to all the great players who have come before us and have laid this tradition, this passion,” Jones said. “So congratulations to them.”
The Vols (1-0) picked up early touchdowns on a 47-yard touchdown from Rajion Neal and a 14-yard scamper from Marlin Lane. The running game continued to dominate in the first half, but it was quarterback Justin Worley who found the end zone three times to help build a commanding lead for the Vols.
Worley connected with Devrin Young (9 yards), Pig Howard (11 yards) and Brendan Downs (3 yards) for scores in the first half. Lane added a 4-yard touchdown run to stretch UT’s lead to 42-0 at the break.
And though the 42-point lead was a great sight for Jones, it was how the Vols performed in terms of managing the game that had him satisfied. There were no penalties, just one turnover and only two incomplete passes thrown by the first-team offense.
“The big thing is that I wanted a clean game,” said Jones, who also said he couldn’t recall another game he’s coached where his team didn’t have a penalty. “I didn't want to have 10 men on the field and have to call unnecessary timeouts. I thought our special teams did a great job in terms of getting the right people on the field.”
The second half was somewhat of a different story, though. The Vols emptied the bench, with over 30 players making their UT debut. Kicker Michael Palardy connected on a 37-yard field goal early in the second half to extend the lead to 45-0, but that was all the scoring on the evening for either team.
There were bright spots in the second half, such as an interception by true freshman cornerback Malik Foreman and 67 yards of rushing by walk-on running back Deanthonie Summerhill, but, overall the Vols weren’t nearly as dominant. After holding a 218-yard advantage in the first half in total yardage, they only led Austin Peay 130-112 in the second half.
“Second half, we have to do better,” Jones said. “Even though we made some changes, the standard and the expectation does not change. I talk to our players all the time about consistency and performance, and this is just one game. We have a lot of work to do. We have an extremely, extremely, extremely talented football team coming in here next Saturday (Western Kentucky), so we have to continue to get better and we have to roll our sleeves up and come to work.”
Two areas that were clicking on Saturday were the run game and the defense. Paced by Rajion Neal’s 141 yards on 16 carries, the Vols finished the contest with 315 yards on the ground. Neal’s work – which was all done in the first half – was the sixth-best half of rushing in school history.
Backup Marlin Lane, who had been slowed for much of fall camp with various injuries, added two touchdowns and 38 yards.
“I’m proud of Rajion and Marlin,” said senior offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James. “That just shows the work we’ve put in since the spring and [offensive coordinator Mike] Bajakian calling the run game.”
Defensively, the Vols became the first team to shut Austin Peay out since September of 2005 – a streak that spanned 84 games. There were shaky moments – especially as substitutions began rolling in – but it was a breath of fresh air for a defense that was embarrassed in 2012.
“We needed to work on some depth,” Jones said. “We needed to get some young players some valuable repetitions. Now we will be able to go back and really coach, correct, critique and really work on getting better.”
• Defensive tackle Daniel Hood had an interception in the first quarter. The senior deflected a pass, made the interception and returned it for 5 yards. Hood said it was his first interception since middle school.
• Ten different players caught at least one pass, but none had more than three catches (Pig Howard & Marquez North) or 33 yards (North). Starting quarterback Justin Worley completed 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
• The Vols had 32 players make their debut, including 10 true freshmen and two junior college transfers. The true freshmen who played were TE A.J. Branisel, DL Jason Carr, CB Malik Foreman, WR Paul Harris, WR Johnathon Johnson, DE Jaylen Miller, WR Marquez North, WR Josh Smith, CB Cameron Sutton and CB DeVaun Swafford. North and Sutton both started.
• Tennessee’s announced attendance of 97,169 was the third-largest crowd in the nation on Saturday. The Vols only drew 87,821 for their home opener in 2012.
• Notable players who were held out due to injury: DE Jacques Smith, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, DE Corey Vereen, LG Dylan Wiesman, TE Alex Ellis and LB Curt Maggitt.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga