KNOXVILLE –South Alabama, a program in just its fifth year of existence, wasn’t intimidated during its trip to Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
The Jaguars marched 82 yards on just six plays in under three minutes to take the early 7-0 lead. That’s when Tennessee (3-2) woke up, but only for a little while.
The Vols surged to a 31-7 lead behind two rushing touchdowns, two passing scores and a field goal, to take what looked to be a commanding lead.
But South Alabama (2-2) bounced back. The Jaguars surged back into the game, cutting UT’s lead to 31-24 in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a tenuous one-score lead, Tennessee’s defense finally got a game-saving stop with just two minutes left in the game. Safety Brian Randolph intercepted a pass in the end zone on fourth and goal, ending South Alabama’s last-ditch drive that made it inside the Tennessee 10 before eventually being stopped and preserving a 31-24 win.
"I've been doing this for 20-plus years and every win is a good win," said UT coach Butch Jones. "I don't think I've ever been in a game like that. You take the good and the bad....everything is a teaching opportunity."
Tennessee won the total yardage battle 482-412, but UT mistakes kept South Alabama in the game. Three turnovers, eight penalties and a botched fake field-goal attempt all helped out the Jaguars. Kicker Michael Palardy and holder Tyler Drummer attempted a fake field goal early in the fourth quarter. It appeared that the play would work, but the Vols were flagged for a false start, nullifying the play.
The next play, a 52-yard field goal attempt by Palardy, was shanked and South Alabama fielded it in the field of play, returning it into UT territory.
"I wanted a clean game and it was far from that – it's been a grind for these kids," Jones said, referencing UT's recent two-game road stretch against Oregon and Florida.
That was especially true at the quarterback position. Justin Worley reclaimed the starting job this week after the injury to Nathan Peterman last week at Florida, but he was far from perfect. He threw two interceptions in the end zone on his way to three total picks.
Jones said he never considered turning to true freshmen Joshua Dobbs or Riley Ferguson, though. He noted that Worley needs to continue to make better decisions, however, he appears set on sticking with the junior signal caller for now.
"I'm proud of Justin,” Jones said. "Playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee – there's a lot that comes with that – and he's learning as we go."
Jones said he would take the bad with the good for the entire team after the closer-than-anticipated victory. There was plenty of both.
The good included a strong day for running back Rajion Neal, who had a career-high 169 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown. Marlin Lane added 66 yards on just five carries and a score before leaving the game late in the first half with a lower-body injury. Jones said they will have an update on him in a few days.
There were also three interceptions for UT’s defense, the first career touchdown catches for freshmen A.J. Branisel and Josh Smith and a team effort through most of the first half that almost put the game out of reach.
But those aforementioned mistakes made it very interesting in the second half. Some of the announced crowd of 87,266, likely thinking UT had the game under wraps, began thinning out in the third and fourth quarters.
The remaining fans grew restless as UT’s lead dwindled late.
“We had some missed opportunities,” said Worley. “They made it a game. Having our defense step up like that, having faith in our guys across the board. It was a little nerve-rattling knowing we may have to go down in a two-minute situation.”
Tennessee scored on just one of its final nine drives of the game. South Alabama, meanwhile, scored on three of its final drives.
“It’s extremely hard to win in college football,” Jones added. “We needed to get to win No. 3 and we got to win No. 3. It was a difficult process, but we got there. This team found a way to win. When you’re trying to teach individuals how to win, everything is a teaching opportunity.”
It’ll get even harder to win for UT going forward. Only SEC games remain, including a murderous three-game stretch upcoming against Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
• Cornerbacks Riyahd Jones and Michael Williams both dressed out for their first time this season, but neither saw action. Receiver Johnathon Johnson, who had been banged up, played, but didn’t record any catches.
• The Vols are now 9-0 all-time against teams in the Sun Belt. That streak was obviously in some deal of jeopardy late in the contest.
• Neal’s 169 yards rushing were the most for a Tennessee back since Montario Hardesty totaled 179 against Kentucky in 2009.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga