Obviously, that was a very humbling defeat. The thing I just told our guys was, absolutely nothing out of that game was good. That's our attitude and that will always be our attitude. —USU head coach Matt Wells
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Prior to each home game, members of the Tennessee football team are bused to within a couple blocks of Neyland Stadium. The players then walk single file down the middle of the road, interacting with thousands of adoring orange-clad fans.
The tradition is known as the Vol Walk, and rather than stop once they got to their home field, the Volunteers just kept on going and walked all over the Aggies Sunday night.
"Obviously, that was a very humbling defeat," USU head coach Matt Wells said after his team's 38-7 loss. " The thing I just told our guys was, absolutely nothing out of that game was good. That's our attitude and that will always be our attitude."
Optimistic that they'd be able to compete against a young SEC team in front of 102,455 people, the Aggies (0-1) fell behind 14-0 in the first six minutes of the game and never recovered. Under the guidance of second-year head coach Butch Jones, the Volunteers (1-0) racked up 273 yards through the air and 110 yards on the ground while limiting USU to a total of 244 yards of offense.
"Honestly, we expected to play a little better coming into this game," said USU linebacker Nick Vigil, who recorded a game- and career-high 15 tackles in the loss. "It was a game that we thought we had a pretty good chance to win, but Tennessee outplayed us in every phase of the game. They were just better everywhere."
Making his first appearance in a real game since blowing his knee out last October, senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton completed 18 of 35 passes for 144 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Meanwhile, his counterpart, UT senior Justin Worley, had a career night, completing 27 of 38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns and completing 13 straight passes during one stretch.
"We just couldn't do anything tonight on defense; they beat us up pretty good," Vigil declared.
Set up by a 38-yard pass from Worley to tight end Brendan Downs, Tennessee scored on its second possession of the game when wide receiver Pig Howard came around from left to right, picked up a block from running back Jalen Hurd and got to the corner for an 8-yard touchdown.
But while UT's inaugural score was discouraging for the Aggies, what happened over the next few seconds was far worse. On USU's subsequent kickoff return, Kennedy Williams fumbled while fighting for extra yardage and the Vols recovered at the 12-yard line. Tennessee then scored just one play later when Worley rolled out to his right and hit tight end Brendan Downs at the goal line to stake Tennessee to a 14-0 lead.
The only other score of the first half came with 1:00 left on a 36-yard field goal by Aaron Medley. That kick was set up by an interception by UT cornerback Cameron Sutton on a pass by Keeton that went through the hands of USU receiver Ronald Butler before being snagged by Sutton.
Trailing 17-0, the Aggies essentially ran out the clock, leaving them scoreless in the first half for the first time since Sept. 25, 2010, at San Diego State.
"We were very active," Jones said of the UT defense. "I think we were able to apply pressure to Chuckie Keeton, and he’s a great player."
After totaling just 97 yards on 31 plays in the first half, the Aggies finally moved the ball on their opening possession of the second half, getting a kickstart from a 36-yard kickoff return by Williams. A 16-yard connection between Keeton and JoJo Natson was followed by 14- and 7-yard runs by Joe Hill, but Jake Thompson's 48-yard field goal attempt ended up going left, keeping USU off the scoreboard
The Volunteers responded by chewing up yardage and time, embarking on a 13-play, six-minute-long drive that all but solidified the outcome of the game. The capper came when Worley hit Von Pearson at about the 16-yard line and the UT receiver cut back inside and slipped through the USU secondary for a 14-yard score that left the hosts up 24-0 with 5:31 left in the third quarter.
Tennessee followed with another long drive and built a 31-0 advantage on a 15-yard pass from Worley to Hurd on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Aggies eventually broke through in the fourth quarter themselves, using a 38-yard run by Natson and a 37-yard connection in the end zone between Keeton and Hunter Sharp to end UT's shutout attempt with 14:16 left in the game.
Tennessee's final score came a few minutes later following the first career interception by senior A.J. Johnson. The standout linebacker returned the pick 23 yards to set up a 7-yard TD run by Marlin Lane.