KNOXVILLE (MCT) – There were a few dazzling debuts.
The defense was even better.
It all made the handful of national prognosticators who made the Tennessee Volunteers trendy opening-week upset victims look pretty foolish by the end of Sunday night.
With nearly half the team, including 21 true freshmen, playing in a college game for the first time, Tennessee turned what looked to be a tricky 2014 opener into an impressive 38-7 rout of upstart Utah State in sold-out Neyland Stadium.
“Being around the guys yesterday in the hotel watching all the other games, you could tell everybody was wishing we played yesterday,” safety Brian Randolph said. “We were hoping the game was yesterday. We carried that over into today, and we unleashed a whole summer’s worth and offseason of anticipation on it.”
The Vols got help from a handful of the 21 members of the touted 2014 recruiting class second-year coach Butch Jones and staff brought in, but a couple of veterans played big parts in pacing them to a win that came much easier than expected.
All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson forced a first-quarter fumble in kickoff coverage to set up a touchdown and intercepted a fourth-quarter pass to put the Vols in position to put the cherry on top of a strong showing.
“Coach told me after last season he was going to put me on kickoff, and I was like, ‘I’m ready for it, Coach,’” Johnson said. “I love kickoff. It’s one of my favorite special teams, because you get to run down and go hit.”
The play set up the Vols’ second touchdown in a 14-second span and set the tone for the stingy play of the defense.
Including a two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter that contained Utah State’s only plays of 20-plus yards, the Aggies finished with just 244 yards of offense and 11 first downs.
“All week we were focused and locked in,” said cornerback Cam Sutton, who set up a second-quarter field goal with an interception. “We stayed in after hours watching film, communicating and talking to each other. It definitely showed tonight.”
Quarterback Justin Worley completed 13 straight passes at one point, equaling the fourth-longest streak in Tennessee history, and spread the ball around to 11 receivers.
He set career highs in completions (27) and attempts (38), threw for 273 yards and hit tight end Brendan Downs, receiver Von Pearson and tailback Jalen Hurd for touchdowns.
Pearson and Hurd, two members of the Vols’ 2014 recruiting class, turned short throws into scores.
Tennessee turned three turnovers, including the first pickoff of Johnson’s career, into 17 points.