published Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

UT Vols realize Utah State a 'really good' opponent

Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton
Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

AGGIES ATTACK

In addition to annual in-state rivalry games against Utah and BYU, Utah State makes yearly trips to power-conference opponents. In the past five years, the Aggies lost those games by a combined 24 points. Here's a look back at the close calls.

• USC 17, Utah State 14 (2013): Lane Kiffin's Trojans kicked the go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter to win, though the Aggies outgained USC 285-282.

• Wisconsin 16, Utah State 14 (2012): The Aggies led in Madison 14-3 at halftime but missed a potential winning field goal in the final seconds.

• Auburn 42, Utah State 38 (2011): Robert Turbin, now with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, scored with 3:38 left to put Utah State up 38-28, but the defending champion Tigers were able to score, recover an onside kick and win the game on Michael Dyer's touchdown with 30 seconds left. Utah State held a 448-364 advantage in yards.

• Oklahoma 31, Utah State 24 (2010): Despite outgaining the Sooners 422-421, the Aggies came up empty on three fourth-quarter drives while trailing by a touchdown.

• Texas A&M 38, Utah State 30 (2009): Utah State scored two late touchdowns to make the final score closer and gained 521 yards of offense.

VOLS GLANCE

• Tennessee vs. Utah State

• Neyland Stadium

• Sunday, 7 p.m.

• SEC Network & 106.5 FM

  • photo
    Tennessee football coach Butch Jones said Monday that he may be identifying the Vols' No. 1 quarterback this week.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The Austin Peay football team won't be walking through Neyland Stadium's doors Sunday night.

Neither will Georgia State, Montana or UT-Martin, for that matter.

To kick off its second season under coach Butch Jones, Tennessee has eschewed the easy route, trading an overmatched Football Championship Subdivision cupcake for a dangerous mid-major program on the rise.

It's clear, though, the Volunteers know what they're getting themselves into against Utah State to open this season.

"Coach Jones, he doesn't sugarcoat anything," receiver Marquez North said Tuesday. "He knows they're a really good football team. We don't take anybody lightly. We prepare the same way each week. We know they're a good football team."

Tennessee is carrying a 19-game win streak in home openers into their first meeting with the Aggies, who went 11-2 under current Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen in 2012 and 9-5 with a loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference championship game in their first season under Matt Wells last year.

In their last eight home openers, the Vols have scored at least 35 points and outscored the visitors 360-76. The stretch started with a 35-18 rout of a ranked California team in 2006, but the level of opponent has decreased steadily since. To open Jones's tenure, Tennessee beat an Austin Peay team that wound up 0-12 and lost by fewer than 24 points just once.

Utah State is trending upward and enters the season with high hopes. During a six-season span from 2005 to 2010, the Aggies were 17-54. In the three seasons since, they were 27-13.

The Aggies have won 25 of their last 33 games, with the losses coming by a combined 48 points, and are 11-5 in their last 16 road games.

"I know that all too well, being at Central Michigan, there's great, great football players [everywhere]," Jones said, "and I think all you have to do is look at the body of work over a long period of time of what's gone on at Utah State.

"They've done a tremendous, tremendous job, and all you have to do is put the film on. You see a very, very well-coached football team, you see a confident football team and you see a capable football team. They have some great football players.

"All you have to do is put the film on," Jones added, "and if you know anything about football, you say, 'This is a really, really good football team.'"

The headlining talent is quarterback Chuckie Keeton, whom Utah State is pumping as a Heisman Trophy candidate, complete with a website and multiple social media accounts.

In 2012, he threw for nearly 3,400 yards with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions while running for 619 yards and eight scores. He was lost for the 2013 season in Utah State's sixth game with a serious knee injury. In the previous five games, he completed better than 69 percent of his passes, averaged 317 yards of offense and scored 20 touchdowns.

"We all understand what we're in store for with Chuckie Keeton," Jones said.

It's a scary challenge for a Tennessee defense that both struggled with quarterbacks of Keeton's ilk last season -- six SEC quarterbacks combined to run for nearly 600 yards on the Vols in 2013, with Auburn's Nick Marshall going for 214 and Missouri's Maty Mauk for 114 -- and will break in an entirely new defensive line while playing roughly a dozen newcomers.

A combination of quarterback Josh Dobbs, receiver Pig Howard and even defensive back Evan Berry will mimic the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Keeton on the scout team in practice this week, Jones said.

"We'll find out in a hurry," the coach added. "I'd like to think we're much more athletic [than last year] on the defensive side of the ball. We've improved our team speed, but to simulate Chuckie Keeton in practice is a challenge in and of itself. We'll find out in a hurry come Sunday night how far we've progressed and where we need to make improvements moving forward."

Jones believes he's adequately educated his team on the challenge it will face to open the season.

"Coach Jones has done a good job of making us aware of our opponent," quarterback Justin Worley said. "They've won some big games. They've lost to some really quality opponents by three points here and there, so we can't take them lightly. They're a really strong opponent, and they're coming off a couple of bowl victories the past few years.

"We've got our hands full."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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