KNOXVILLE -- Whether it was the more relaxed atmosphere because of a smaller crowd or the step down in competition provided by the opponent, Justin Worley's nerves were gone.
Now Tennessee's four-game losing streak is gone, too.
In his second start at quarterback, the freshman Worley completed 23 of his 32 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown, and the Volunteers' defense pitched their first shutout since last season's opener in a 24-0 nonconference win against Middle Tennessee State at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Worley was errant on some throws early and threw two costly second-half interceptions in his debut last week, a 14-3 home loss to South Carolina that kept the Vols (4-5) winless in the Southeastern Conference.
"Last week I came in and was trying to rush some things, rush some throws, rush some reads," Worley said. "This week I tried to come in and stay calm through my reads and in the pocket. We came out and executed pretty well. Last week I came out with a bad feeling because I didn't meet my expectations, we didn't meet the team's goals or anything."
Much like last week, Worley got help from an improving UT defense, which forced three turnovers, including first-half interceptions by linebacker Austin Johnson and nickel back Eric Gordon that UT cashed into 10 points.
The Blue Raiders (2-6) were 21st nationally in passing and were averaging nearly 30 points per game. The Vols held MTSU's up-tempo spread offense to 230 yards.
"The coaches had a great plan, they really did," UT head coach Derek Dooley said. "We've grown a lot since the Oregon game last year with this fast-paced [defense]. We did an excellent job of substitutions, we were never misaligned and it allowed our players to play. When you've better players, line up right and play hard, you'll win the game
"I thought everybody played well. When you pitch a shutout in today's game, it is great, I don't care who you play."
While UT's defense was forcing MTSU to go three-plays-and-punt three times in the first half, Worley and the Vols' receivers were doing what UT hadn't done in its last three games: throw and catch. He completed nine of his first 10 throws and finished 16-of-21 passing in the first half.
Worley completed passes to nine receivers, led by Da'Rick Rogers' nine-catch, 137-yard performance. That combination hooked up for a brilliant 47-yard score in the first half, unlike it did last week when Rogers dropped a would-be touchdown pass.
"[Rogers] played a lot better than he did [last week]," Dooley said. "We didn't play very good a week ago. We had a challenge at quarterback, playing a good team, but nobody played well on offense a week ago. There was a lot better focus today. Justin played well.
"When the quarterback plays well, that tends to help everybody out."
It helped Worley that MTSU had a passing efficiency defense that was just 90th nationally, but he was much more comfortable from the start and missed on a few deep throws that might have made his night even more impressive.
"It feels good to get a win," Johnson said. "It's always nice to have a 'W' no matter who your opponent is. If feels like we haven't won in forever. It feels nice to get that under the belt and go into tomorrow with a little bit better attitude."
The announced attendance was 88,211, though that number was nowhere near the actual attendance. More than half of the UT student section was empty, and most of the crowd departed by halftime.
"It is our job to bring the people," Dooley said. "Our fans are the best. The Vol Walk was huge. This is a tough circumstance on the crowd. Let's call it like it is: You are not playing an SEC game and you are going head-to-head against a game that has been hyped up. I thought the crowd was great. I appreciate the support they bring us."
UT's defense held MTSU to 78 first-half yards. The Blue Raiders drove to the Vols' 15-yard line before Corey Miller batted down a fourth-down pass at the line of scrimmage. Jacques Smith ended a fourth-quarter venture into the end zone by forcing a fumble.
"Man, it feels good," Dooley said. "When you lose and keep losing it pulls on your spirit and you start questioning everything, you start doubting everything. Nothing heals better than a good win, and it was a good win. I'm proud of the team."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...