Vols avert disaster with 20-13 overtime win in openerView 24 Photos
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee used up a season's worth of luck to grab a season-opening win it probably didn't deserve.
The Volunteers will take a 1-0 start, though.
Running back Jalen Hurd recovered quarterback Josh Dobbs' fumble in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score as Tennessee battled back from a 10-point deficit and won 20-13 in overtime against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium on Thursday night.
"At the end of the day we won the ballgame," Dobbs said, "and we'll go back and watch the film and see how we can improve going on to next week."
Dobbs and the Vols will see plenty of mistakes to correct.
Tennessee struggled along both lines of scrimmage, and Dobbs was running for his life most of the night as the Mountaineers were able to generate consistent pressure, sometimes with three-man rushes.
The Vols defense managed only six tackles for loss and didn't force any turnovers while struggling with poor tackling.
For most of the night the three-touchdown favorites were outplayed and outcoached by the hungrier, sharper Mountaineers, but Tennessee found a way to survive when Micah Abernathy broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone to end the game.
"I'm never going to apologize for a win, guys," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "I think we've learned around here wins are pretty hard to come by. I'll never apologize for a win. I'm proud of our players, because they found a way to win the football game. Do we have to get a lot better? Absolutely we have to get a lot better.
"It starts with me and it starts with our coaches and it starts with our players and it starts with everyone in the organization, but we found a way to win the football game with everything and anything that could go wrong."
After Tennessee tied the game with 10:30 remaining on Josh Malone's 67-yard touchdown catch, both teams had chances to win the game in regulation.
Appalachian State could have taken the lead after Jaquil Capel's 45-yard punt return, but redshirt freshman Michael Rubino pushed the first attempt of his college career wide right with 5:24 remaining.
The Mountaineers threatened again on their final possession, but questionable clock management led to overtime as quarterback Taylor Lamb scrambled out of bounds at the Tennessee 30-yard line as time expired.
Tennessee twice had the ball after tying the game at 13 with more than 10 minutes left in regulation, but the Vols were unable to threaten as they were foiled by a holding penalty and a sack.
"Adversity is going to hit and strike at any moment," cornerback Cameron Sutton said, "and it happened to be the first game. We had a lot of adversity throughout this game and a lot things that didn't go our way, but we were still sticking together and still playing together."
Sutton's muffed punt set the tone for a nervy night for the heavily favored hosts, who lost only one of their four fumbles.
Appalachian State took advantage of the turnover with runs of 20 and 11 yards by Marcus Cox setting up Lamb's short touchdown run.
Preston Williams couldn't hold on to a touchdown catch in the back of the end zone on the next series, and Appalachian State, which led the country in red-zone defense last season, forced a short Aaron Medley field goal.
The next three Tennessee possessions ended in punts and produced only 28 yards. A first-down sack derailed one series, and the next one faltered after a lost-yardage run on first down and a holding penalty on tackle Brett Kendrick.
After forcing a three-and-out and starting its final first-half series at midfield, the Vols had a sliding 29-yard catch by Josh Smith overturned by video replay, and Dobbs threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted with Tennessee in field-goal range.
Appalachian State kept Tennessee's defense off balance with a variety of misdirection plays and scored its lone touchdown four plays after a gutsy call to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 45.
"You don't win 17 out of your last 19 games," Jones said, "and just expect to come in here (and roll over)."
Appalachian State didn't, but Tennessee survived.
"A win's a win," Malone said, "but we feel a little disappointed in the mistakes we made. They're small mistakes that can be fixed, and that's the best thing about it. All of the mistakes we made tonight can be fixed, so we're just going to have go in the film room, break it down with the coaches and go back on the practice field and fix those mistakes."
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Updated Sept. 2 at 1:07 a.m. with a full game story.