KNOXVILLE — There were a few dazzling debuts.
The defense was even better.
It all made the handful of national analysts that made the Tennessee Volunteers a trendy opening-week upset pick look pretty foolish by the end of Sunday night.
Playing nearly 20 true freshmen and leaning on two of its valuable seniors, Tennessee turned what looked to be a tricky 2014 opener into an impressively comfortable win in a 38-7 rout of upstart Utah State on Labor Day eve in front of a soldout Neyland Stadium.
"I knew we were ready to go," second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, "by our overall demeanor in our walk-through yesterday and in the team hotel.
"It's more instead of hoping to win, but earning the right to win," he continued. "We talk about not hoping to win, but investing to win during the week with our style of play. It's different. These players expect to win."
Tennessee played 21 true freshman -- quickly surpassing the previous program record of 12 from 2010 and 2011 -- and 32 players made their debut for the Vols.
Yet Tennessee leaned on a couple of older players to drive them to an important season-opening win.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson, who looks poised for a big senior season after the two-time All-SEC pick, forced a first-quarter fumble in kickoff coverage to set up Tennessee's and intercepting a fourth-quarter pass to put the Vols in position to put the cherry on top of a strong showing.
"He does his job and he takes pride in his job and takes pride in his quality of performance," Jones said. "We're gonna need more from him. Obviously there's things we need to get corrected overall."
Quarterback Justin Worley, who was playing his most effective football midway through last season when he was injured and lost for the season, was sharp and steady. The senior completed 13 straight passes at one point, equalling the fourth-longest streak in Tennessee history, and spread the ball around to 11 different players.
He set career highs in completions (27) and attempts (38), threw for 273 yards and hit tight end Brendan Downs, receiver Von Pearson and tailback Jalen Hurd for touchdowns.
"He played winning football at the quarterback position," Jones said.
"He was calm and collected," the coach added. "He acted like he'd been there before. He was a calming presence."
Chuckie Keeton, the Utah State quarterback being pumped by his own program as a Heisman Trophy candidate, never looked comfortable in his first game since suffering a serious knee injury last October, though he didn't get much help from his wide receivers.
Keeton, who averaged more than 300 yards of offense per game as a sophomore in 2012 and in the first five games of 2013, finished with just 144 yards on 18-of-35 passing and threw two interceptions.
The Vols held the Aggies to 1-of-6 on third downs in the first half and stuffed another fourth-and-1 play, and Utah State managed just 97 yards of offense in the first half.
"All week we were focused and locked in," said cornerback Cam Sutton, who set up a second-quarter field goal with an interception. "We stayed in after hour studying film. We were communicating and talking, and it paid off."
Including a two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter that contained Utah State's only plays of 20-plus yards, the Aggies finished with just 244 yards of offense and 11 first downs, and three turnovers led to 17 Tennessee points.
"Our team speed has improved," Jones said. "I thought we were active and did a good job of pressuring Keeton. We did a great job in the secondary of being resilient.
"We're gonna have to swarm and play with great effort or we become very average."
The Vols scored two touchdowns 14 seconds apart in the first quarter, but a sputtering offense failed to add to the cushion despite taking four consecutive drives into Utah State territory.
"I didn't think we got into an overall rhythm," Jones said. "The second half was a little bit better."
The Vols took their first two possessions of the second half 69 and 73 yards to ballon the lead to 31-0 one play into the fourth quarter, and both drives were capped by impressive plays from Pearson and Hurd, two members of Tennessee's touted 2014 recruiting class.
Tennessee managed just 383 yards of offense and huffed and puffed its way to 110 rushing yards. Marlin Lane, with 41 yards on 11 carries, was the leading rusher behind the Vols' new-look offensive line, which also committed some untimely false-start penalties.
"Being the around in the hotel and watching all the other games yesterday," safety Brian Randolph said, "everybody was wishing we played yesterday instead of today.
"We carried that over into today. We released a a whole summer and offseason's worth of anticipation on it."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...