1.) I’ve been to a lot of Tennessee football games over the years, and I have never seen a crowd two hours away from kickoff as large as the one that was on-hand for yesterday’s pre game festivities — at least not for a non-conference game. Several others made similar comments. By 2:45 p.m., a full two hours before the Vol Walk, all the “front row” spots along Peyton Manning Pass and Phillip Fulmer Drive were claimed. An hour before the team made its walk to Neyland Stadium, fans were already lined up four- and five-deep along the route. Clearly, the fact that it was a night game on a holiday weekend made a difference, but the bottom line is that East Tennessee is primed and ready for this Vols football program to return to greatness. And last night they caught a glimpse of what that return might feel like.
2.) A.J. Johnson. My goodness, what a game the senior linebacker had. It was easily the game of his career. He finished in double-digits in tackles, forced a fumble, intercepted a pass that he nearly housed, and came within a hair of intercepting another, which would have certainly been a pick-six if he could’ve made the catch. He was, without a doubt, the game’s MVP.
3.) The defense in general simply looked outstanding. It was a daylight-and-dark difference between last year’s defense, and the defenses from the past couple of seasons. There were very few missed tackles, and on the occasions when there was a missed tackle, help arrived to clean things up. Defenders were pursuing the football with speed that has been missing. There were numerous open-field tackles that defenders couldn’t cleanly execute in past years. There were better pursuit angles. Utah State didn’t get past the 50-yard-line until the second half, and only twice the entire game. Take away two big plays in the second half, and it’s a shutout. The Aggies were 3 of 14 on third downs and 0 of 1 on fourth downs. Let’s wait until conference play begins to issue a final judgment on this defense, but at first glance, the improvements are notable.
4.) YOUTH. It was all over the field for Tennessee. The Vols played 21 true freshman. The previous record for the number of true freshmen playing in a UT game? 12. And it wasn’t like they all played mop-up duty after the game was in hand. By the end of the first quarter, 16 true freshmen had already hit the field. And their names were being called all night long. Jalen Hurd had a touchdown reception, Todd Kelly Jr. forced a fumble, Dillon Bates was big on special teams . . . and the list goes on.
5.) Chuckie who?!? It’s probably safe to say that Utah State can shelve their Heisman Trophy campaign materials. The Aggies were promoting Chuckie Keeton as a Heisman candidate, but UT’s defense made the quarterback — who was spectacular as a sophomore and early last year before missing most of the season with ACL and MCL tears — look very average. He completed 18 of 35 passes for 144 yards and had two interceptions, while averaging only 1.5 yards with his legs.
6.) Tennessee’s rebuilt offensive line has much work to do. The Vols averaged just 2.8 yards per carry (Utah State averaged 4.2) against a defense that is definitely not an SEC-caliber defense. There was very little push off the ball on run plays. In pass protection, the line struggled mightily early on, then appeared to improve somewhat as the game progressed. But throw in the false start penalties (four of them) and the ineligible receiver penalty that negated a big gain into scoring position, and the talent downgrade on the line from last season to this was painfully evident.
7.) Justin Worley had a good game, completing a career-high 27 passes (on 39 attempts) for 273 yards and three touchdowns. That was particularly impressive considering it was Worley’s first game back from his thumb injury last year. But there’s still plenty of reason for caution. Worley did not look good throwing the ball down the field. He hesitated too long as he waited for receivers to come open (which resulted in one sack) and overthrew receivers who had their defenders beat. Still, the important things were that Worley didn’t turn the ball over, managed the game well, and did a good job completing the many high-percentage passes that his coaches set up for him.
8.) It’s clear that UT sees the strength of its offense as being its receiving corps. The Vols ran many bubble screens and other edge screens against Utah State. The idea is to simply get the ball into the hands of a receiver and let him try to break a big play. It worked, too. Will it work against Oklahoma or Florida or Georgia or Alabama? Probably not as well, but the bottom line is that Tennessee has to get the ball into its playmakers’ hands however possible, and the playmakers are definitely the receivers.
9.) Third down for what?!? It will get old by the end of the season, but Neyland Stadium’s third down rally ditty (a play on the hip-hop hit “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil John) was an instant crowd energizer, especially for the student section. At one point on a third down in the first quarter, the cheerleaders’ decibel meter hit 101. On a couple of other occasions, it hit 99.
10.) It probably goes without saying, but it’s probably best for UT fans to be optimistically cautious. Tennessee was only a four-point favorite going into last night’s game, most of the “experts” at ESPN, Sports Illustrated, et al, were predicting an upset win by Utah State, and the Aggies are one of only nine teams in FBS to win at least 20 games over the past two seasons. But all of that is based on recent results. Utah State featured one of the most inexperienced teams in college football coming into Neyland Stadium — replacing virtually every starter from last year’s team that upset No. 24 Northern Illinois in its bowl game. In a few weeks we may very well be talking about just how bad Utah State is this season. I’m not ready to say that this Tennessee team will win eight games. I still think getting to 6-6 will be an accomplishment. With that said, we didn’t see a lot from UT’s opponents in this first weekend of college football that has a lot of Vols fans quaking in their boots…but, by the same token, it’s probably fair to say that UT’s opponents didn’t see much from the Vols last night that has them quaking in their boots.