KNOXVILLE — Sunday's visit to Neyland Stadium was supposed to be Utah State's first win over a major opponent after being one of only nine college football teams to win at least 20 games the last two seasons. It was supposed to be the kickoff of quarterback Chuckie Keeton's campaign for the Heisman Trophy.
Instead, Tennessee's defense set the tone and the Vols' offense moved the ball well enough to seize control of the game early, as Tennessee defeated the Aggies, 38-7.
Tennessee's defense did not allow Utah State to cross mid field until the third quarter and limited the Aggies to just three of 14 on third down conversions. Keeton, who was making his return to the playing field after a season-ending injury in 2013, was intercepted twice and was outshone by Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley.
Worley, who like Keeton was making his return from a season-ending injury a year ago, completed a career-high 27 passes on 39 attempts for 273 yards and three touchdowns.
"Justin played winning football at the quarterback position," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "He played very, very good football."
More importantly, Tennessee did not have any turnovers.
"In your first game you always worry about turnovers, and we didn't turn the ball over," Jones said. "Zer0 turnovers in the first game was good to see."
The Vols' running game struggled to find yardage against Utah State's talent-laden defensive front seven. Marlin Lane and true freshman Jalen Hurd combined for just 70 yards on 22 carries. But the Vols' receivers were good enough to be the difference-makers. Pig Howard led the way with six catches for 37 yards, while Marquez North had four catches. Eleven different Tennessee players had receptions, and eight different players caught at least two passes.
Newcomers played major roles in the Vols' win. After an early touchdown by Howard, true freshman Todd Kelly Jr. recovered a fumbled kickoff that was forced by A.J. Johnson, leading to a Worley touchdown pass to Brendan Downs on the next play. The two touchdowns in 14 seconds appeared to take the wind out of the sails of Utah State.
Newcomer Von Pearson later caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Worley, and true freshman Hurd caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Worley.
Aaron Medley got his name in the scoring column with a 36-yard field goal, in addition to his five extra points.
Tennessee played a total of 21 true freshmen — 16 by the end of the first quarter. Prior to Sunday's game, the most true freshman to appear in any single Tennessee game was 12.
The night did not completely belong to the newcomers, however. Familiar faces also played big roles. Linebackers Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin teamed up for 19 tackles. In addition to the forced fumble, Johnson also had an interception to set up a touchdown and another pass broken-up that nearly turned into an interception. Lane scored a touchdown for Tennessee and led the team in rushing, with 44 yards.
Tennessee, which entered the game as four-point favorites, was playing before its first sell-out crowd for a season opener since 2007. Official attendance was 102,455. Outside Neyland Stadium, throngs of orange-clad fans gathered well before kickoff for pre game festivities such as the Vol Walk and the Pride of the Southland Band's march to the stadium, signaling a building excitement among the Tennessee fan base. The expectation that Tennessee would play many of its signees from this year's recruiting class — ranked by all major recruiting services as one of the top five recruiting classes in the country — made Sunday's game a highly-anticipated one.
In all, 32 newcomers saw the field.
"About half of them came up to me (after the Vol Walk) and said, 'Coach, now I get what you've been saying about this place being special,'" Jones said. "We set the temperament of the State of Tennessee.
"Now here's my challenge," Jones added. "We need you come noon next Saturday."
The Vols will face Arkansas State at noon Saturday. The university announced Sunday that single game tickets are still available.