KNOXVILLE — There were a few dazzling debuts.
The defense was even better.
It all made the handful of national prognosticators who made the Tennessee Volunteers trendy opening-week upset victims look pretty foolish by the end of Sunday night.
With nearly half the team, including 21 true freshmen, playing in a college game for the first time, Tennessee turned what looked to be a tricky 2014 opener into an impressive 38-7 rout of upstart Utah State in sold-out Neyland Stadium.
"Being around the guys yesterday in the hotel watching all the other games, you could tell everybody was wishing we played yesterday," safety Brian Randolph said. "We were hoping the game was yesterday. We carried that over into today, and we unleashed a whole summer's worth and offseason of anticipation on it."
The Vols got help from a handful of the 21 members of the touted 2014 recruiting class second-year coach Butch Jones and staff brought in, but a couple of veterans played big parts in pacing them to a win that came much easier than expected.
All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson forced a first-quarter fumble in kickoff coverage to set up a touchdown and intercepted a fourth-quarter pass to put the Vols in position to put the cherry on top of a strong showing.
"Coach told me after last season he was going to put me on kickoff, and I was like, 'I'm ready for it, Coach,'" Johnson said. "I love kickoff. It's one of my favorite special teams, because you get to run down and go hit."
The play set up the Vols' second touchdown in a 14-second span and set the tone for the stingy play of the defense.
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.
"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 hours watching film, communicating and talking to each other. It definitely showed tonight."
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.
He finished with just 144 yards on 18-of-35 passing and threw two interceptions.
The Vols held the Aggies to 1-of-6 conversions on third downs in the first half and stuffed a fourth-and-1 play, and Utah State managed just 97 yards of offense in the first half while Tennessee's offense struggled to add to the lead.
Tennessee didn't miss many tackles and looked like a faster defense Sunday night.
"We're going to have to swarm," Jones said. "We're going to have to play with great effort. If we don't, we become very average.
"We didn't give up very many big plays," the coach added, "and a lot of it is the overall speed and athleticism that we've been able to gain defensively."
Quarterback Justin Worley completed 13 straight passes at one point, equaling the fourth-longest streak in Tennessee history, and spread the ball around to 11 receivers.
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.
Pearson and Hurd, two members of the Vols' 2014 recruiting class, turned short throws into scores.
"I came off the field after Jalen's screen that he took for a touchdown and said, 'We've got some playmakers,'" Worley said. "We really do, across the board. From the tight end standpoint, to receivers, to running backs now, and you can't really focus on one guy, I feel like. There's several guys we can attack you with."
Tennessee turned three turnovers, including the first pickoff of Johnson's career, into 17 points.
"It was a good feeling," Randolph said, "to see our leader finally get his first interception."
Tennessee managed just 383 yards of offense and huffed and puffed its way to 110 rushing yards behind the new-look offensive line. Most of production came on touchdown drives of 69 and 73 yards to open the second half.
"What you did this week doesn't make any difference in next week," Jones said. "But we also talk about rather than hoping to win, investing in victory -- earning that right to win by your work ethic, by your style of play, by your investment of studying film and your team chemistry. It's different. These players expect to win."
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 ...