Posted: 5:20 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013
By Will Shelton
If you were scripting yesterday's game, your fiction would've been pretty similar to the truth we saw: no threats and no drama from Austin Peay, an offense that had six drives for six touchdowns when the first team was on the field, a shutout from a defense desperately in need of a confidence boost after last year, and no penalties, which far and away led the all-important "What Were They Talking About At Church This Morning" category, a great indicator of what the people value most. Butch Jones led a disciplined and focused effort, continuing to separate himself from his predecessor in the minds of the Vol faithful, a leap we're all happy to make. All of this leads to the continued endorsement of the 97,000 who showed up yesterday and the countless more who want to believe in Butch Jones.
The most glaring concerns from yesterday involved the second team, so "stay healthy" will continue to be a critical hope this season. But after one game much of Tennessee's identity seems to be built around the question we thought we'd be asking: can this team run the ball well enough to carry the load offensively?
The ratio when the first team offense was on the field in the first half: 28 runs, 13 passes. The Vols spread the wealth in both facets: Rajion Neal got 141 yards on 16 carries (8.8 per), Marlin Lane added 6 for 38 (6.3 per), Pig Howard and Devrin Young each got a specialty carry, and how about Justin Worley with 21 yards on 4 carries? (including a seven yard loss at the goal line, but still)
Meanwhile through the air Worley went 11 of 13 for 104 yards (8.0 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns. He targeted Marquez North five times, also connecting with Pig Howard three times and Rajion Neal, Devrin Young, Brendan Downs, Josh Smith, and Jacob Carter once each. For a team in search of playmakers, letting nine different people touch the ball with the first team is a good start.
So the first team offense takes their bow at halftime with 317 yards, 213 of them on the ground at 7.6 per carry. By contrast, in the second half the Vols averaged just 4.25 yards per carry. So is this the script we'll see in the weeks to come? Something in the neighborhood of a two-to-one run-pass ratio, maximizing strengths with experienced backs and our stud offensive line while minimizing weaknesses with young quarterbacks and receivers? I say if we can get away with it, absolutely.
Will we get away with it? That's the question. There will be times the Vols need Worley to make a play, and the good news here is our quarterback had a hand in all four of UT's third down conversions in the first half with an 11 yard run, the nine yard touchdown pass to Pig Howard, helping draw a pass interference call late in the half, then hitting Brendan Downs for a beautiful touchdown. As such the Vols went 4/4 on third down with the first team, another check in the plus column.
Nathan Peterman got no snaps with the ones and our vaunted freshmen didn't even play. So at the moment this does appear to truly be Worley's team, and through one game he's made the most of it. If the Vols can run successfully Tennessee shouldn't need him to be the hero much; yesterday he didn't put us in a bad spot with his arm and, despite a couple of throws behind Marquez North that need to be brought up to speed, was very efficient in running the offense, which is what these coaches want. So far, so good.
Meanwhile Tennessee's defense will eventually be called on to stand in the gap when the mammoth run game doesn't go for 7.6 yards per carry and Worley isn't completing 84.6% of his passes. Tennessee got a great game from Daniel Hood, solid tackling in space (super critical considering who we're getting ready to play the rest of the month), and a business-like effort that kept Austin Peay off the scoreboard. There's much more to be seen with this group, including a sustained pass rush (didn't look like we were trying with a ton of pressure however), but the Vols will also get healthier with Curt Maggitt, Jacques Smith, and Corey Vereen.
Again, it was what we thought and what we wanted. Just as impressive as the 45-0 victory was the crowd and the atmosphere - the Vols drew an announced crowd that was 10,000 bigger than last year's Georgia State home opener with the Vols coming off the big NC State win. It was 3,000 more than the Montana opener in 2011, and 3,000 more than the last time Butch Jones was in Neyland Stadium. Fan optimism and presence has reset to where it's supposed to be for a brand new coach - the Vols drew 98,000 for Kiffin's opener and 99,000 for Dooley's - despite the program suffering through one of its most difficult stretches culminating in Dooley's dismissal.
People are clearly willing to believe in Butch Jones. And that's good, because we'll need them next week. Nothing will put a damper on that belief like a loss to Western Kentucky, a solid team with Bobby Petrino in tow that just beat Kentucky by nine on a neutral field. A loss to WKU wouldn't doom Butch or 2013 - Lane Kiffin lost to a vastly inferior UCLA team and the '09 Vols still finished strong - but it would wound the momentum he's been building thus far, with nothing but Top 10 teams coming down the pipe. A win on Saturday would help carry Tennessee through the tough stretch that follows.
So yeah, great start. The Vols just went through the lay-up line with no misses. Now the real game begins. If you liked what you saw on and off the field on Saturday, the best way to keep it going is to do the same thing against a team that can fight back. Will it be enough? We'll find out in six days.