published Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Justin Worley adds to confidence in UT Vols' opener

Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley passes during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley passes during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LOOKING AHEAD

After Sunday night's win, Tennessee is operating on a short week as it prepares to host Arkansas State for a noon kickoff on Saturday. Here are three quick tidbits about the Red Wolves:

• The Vols again will face an athletic quarterback in Arkansas State junior Fredi Knighten, who threw for 219 yards and ran for 104 in the Red Wolves' 37-10 win against Montana State on Saturday.

• The Red Wolves piled up 558 yards (294 rushing, 264 passing) in the opener and turned a 13-10 third-quarter lead into a comfortable win with touchdowns on three straight drives that lasted 44, 48 and 67 seconds.

• Blake Anderson, Arkansas State's fourth head coach in as many seasons, was Larry Fedora's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Southern Mississippi and North Carolina for four seasons before taking the job in Jonesboro.

  • photo
    Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson carries the ball through the center after intercepting it during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Justin Worley had no idea his streak of consecutive completions reached double digits.

All the Tennessee quarterback noticed was the Volunteers having success on offense.

After a second-quarter funk that allowed visiting Utah State to stay within striking distance, Worley found a groove in the second half of Tennessee's 38-7 season-opening win against the Aggies on Sunday night and completed 13 straight passes at one point to get his senior season off to a solid start.

"I'm assuming it was during that 15-play drive and the nine-play drive," Worley said following his sixth career win as a starter. "I just knew the offense was running well. I didn't realize I'd strung together that many passes. It's always good to have some completions that keep the offense running smoothly."

In his 11th start for Tennessee, Worley set career highs with 27 completions and 38 attempts and didn't throw an interception, and the 273 yards passing were the second-most in his career behind a 291-yard game against Middle Tennessee State when he was a freshman in 2011.

Perhaps most impressive, though, was how Worley played in the second half in leading the Vols on touchdown drives of 69 and 73 yards to put Tennessee up 31-0 early in the fourth quarter.

"Justin's a very even-keeled guy," said freshman tight end Ethan Wolf, who caught three passes for 26 yards in his debut. "He's always positive. He's the first one there to tell us we're doing something right or wrong, and it really gives us confidence that someone's there to help us out if we make mistakes."

After halftime, Worley was 13-of-15 passing for 126 yards, and Tennessee found its rhythm in the passing game.

"They threw some different looks at us, and it took a little bit of time to adjust to it and get the play-calling better prepared for what they were showing us," Worley explained.

"The second drive we went down and scored right away, and we bounced back and had the touchdown off the turnover. We did have a little bit more success in the second half with some longer drives that we strung together, which ate up some clock and helped our defense a little bit. I think it was all about adjustments tonight."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Worley was firmly in control of the offense and "played winning football," which is probably one of the best compliments he gives his players.

"Justin was calm and collected, and he acted like had been there before," Jones said. "He was kind of a calming presence on the sideline. I thought our receivers, for the most part, did a good job of catching the football. They made some really good catches to extend drives, and we haven't that in the past, so that was great to see as well."

Worley averaged only a shade more than 10 yards per completion, and Jones acknowledged after the game that Tennessee needs to improve its downfield passing game. The flipside of that, though, is the Vols now have the personnel to turn short passes -- and there were plenty of those Sunday night -- into long gains.

Josh Smith took a bubble screen and broke free for a 38-yard gain to set up the Vols' first touchdown, Von Pearson did likewise on his 12-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and tailback Jalen Hurd turned a screen pass into a 15-yard score.

"It's awesome," Worley said. "Knowing that I don't have to force a deep ball or something like that for us to make a splash play, like Coach Jones says, is huge. Being able to throw a bubble to Josh Smith or Pig [Howard] and have them take it 40 yards, that builds my confidence, and it helps our offense run a little smoother, too."

Worley navigated the pocket well when under pressure and took what Utah State's defense gave him while taking care of the ball, and Tennessee will need similar performances from him all season.

"He just made smart decisions," Pearson said. "We had nice blocking out there from our line, and he just made smart decisions. Whoever was open, he just gave it to us and let us do what we had to do."

Tennessee tidbits

Jones said his "gut feeling" prompted him to go with freshman Aaron Medley, who hit 85 percent of his field-goal tries from inside 40 yards in training camp, over George Bullock at kicker. ... Punter Matt Darr sprained his left ankle on a punt late in the fourth quarter, but Jones said he was fine. ... Jones on putting All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson, the team's most important defender, on special teams, where he forced a key fumble Sunday: "Kickoff coverage is the first play for a defense."

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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