KNOXVILLE — One yard. That's all that stood between the University of Tennessee football team and an early-season statement.
After a Todd Kelly Jr. interception to stop Oklahoma's first drive, the Volunteers marched impressively downfield, covering 50 yards in nine plays to reach the Sooners' 1-yard line. But although 240-pound power back Jalen Hurd had gained 14 yards on just three carries in the drive, UT elected to give Alvin Kamara his first carry near the goal line and the smaller runner was stuffed for no gain.
The Vols' coaching staff then elected to settle for the early field goal, rather than prove it was ready to take the chances needed to knock off a nationally ranked opponent inside Neyland Stadium.
That decision didn't appear as if it would have much effect on the game as the Vols went on to score 17 points in the first 18 minutes and take command. But as the game wore on, and the offense was stymied in the second half, the choice not to give the ball to Hurd, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry in rushing for 106 yards, loomed large.
And as has been the case far too often with the Vols the past eight years, they found yet another frustrating way to swipe a loss from certain victory. This time it began with wasting good field position in the first half.
"We've got to take advantage of that first-half field position," frustrated UT coach Butch Jones said.
Added Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs, whose interception ended the game: "It's all about execution. And we didn't when it mattered."
As the offense grew more stagnant — barely threatening to score in the final 43 minutes of regulation — the defense wore down late. After spending 11 minutes on the field in the fourth quarter, the defenders couldn't prevent Oklahoma's potent offense from scoring just enough points in the second half to force overtime.
The gassed defense then allowed touchdowns in both extra periods.
"We worked to stop them. We just couldn't get off the field when we needed to in the second half," said UT linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. "It takes a toll on you toward the end of the game. Nobody was tapping out, though. We've got a job to do."
The Sooners were well-represented Saturday, as thousands of their fans flocked to Knoxville to take in Oklahoma's first trip to Tennessee.
Chris Fuller, Tennessee's associate athletic director for external operations, told the Times Free Press during halftime of Saturday's game that Oklahoma quickly sold out of its allotment of 7,500 tickets and requested more from Tennessee.
Tennessee fans traveled similarly well to last season's game in Norman.
> The Vols hosted a big recruiting weekend as many prospects came to Knoxville to see the game.
Among the headliners in the 2016 class were Hendersonville (Tenn.) cornerback Joejuan Williams, Elbert County (Ga.), athlete Mecole Hardman and Peachtree Ridge (Ga.) safety Nigel Warrior, the son of former Tennessee and NFL Pro Bowl defensive back Dale Carter.
The crop of 2017 prospects on campus included Tennessee quarterback commitment Hunter Johnson, five-star Georgia cornerback Deangelo Gibbs and four-star North Carolina linebacker Justin Foster.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.