LEXINGTON, Va. — Alphonso Stewart wasn't the only player to make a big impact in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 63-7 victory over Virginia Military Institute on Saturday, but he was one of the first.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound wide receiver finished with five catches — tied for the team lead — for a team-high 58 yards and a score in the Mocs' lopsided win.
He had three catches for 48 yards on UTC's first drive, including a 15-yard scoring reception in which he fought through a couple of would-be tacklers for the score. He followed that with a blocked punt — that he caught with his body — that led to a short field and eventually a 1-yard scoring run by Darrell Bridges.
"I ran past the ball and blocked it with my side," Stewart said. "I could have tackled the guy, but I just laid out and hoped something touched him."
The team had many sparks throughout the game — including Markell Boston's first-possession interception and Lucas Webb's fumble recovery for a score — but Stewart's quick start put the Mocs in control from the outset, something they hadn't been able to do all season.
The Mocs finished with a season-high 397 yards on offense, while holding the ball for more than 38 minutes, and increased their points per game for 2017 from 10 to 23.8.
"We wanted to start this game faster than to start any game off, because we know when the offense gets rolling it's going to be hard to stop us," Stewart said. "We wanted to play ahead instead of behind again."
It was almost a bad week for defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman, who after harping to the defense on forcing turnovers, told his unit that if they created five they could cut his hair to whatever style they chose.
Still, the four first-half turnovers were the first takeaways by the defense since a Webb interception in the first half of the season opener against Jacksonville State.
"He dodged a bullet," linebacker Tae Davis said of Kaufman. "There's always next week."
The Mocs finished plus-three on takeaways, the first time they have had a plus-ratio in that area all season. That, plus UTC's overall defensive effort, led to seven touchdown drives that started on VMI's end of the field.
"It is critical," UTC coach Tom Arth said. "Turnovers are a major predictor of success. Unfortunately, we gave them one, but we were able to get four. That really helped to create some momentum and got some short fields for our offense. Our players went out and executed at a really high level."
True freshman Brandon Dowdell had been working his way onto the field during special teams and a couple of defensive schemes, but he made his first real impact of the season Saturday with a pair of punt returns totaling 42 yards. His best one, a 26-yarder in which he started right, made a nice cutback and scrambled to the VMI 37-yard line, led to a Nick Tiano touchdown pass to James Stovall.
"I thought he did a great job," Arth said. "I thought he had some nice returns. He caught the ball well. He has been playing for us, and he has been such a key guy on special teams for us. He is one of our best special-teams players. He is a smart guy; football is really important to him. He is what you want to have across the board."
On the last play of the first half, offensive lineman Branden Parker fell awkwardly on his head and lay on the field for five to 10 minutes. He eventually walked off the field under his own power, but he did not return to the game.
"It was an unfortunate situation," Arth said. "He took a hit at the end of the half and wasn't able to come back. We will see. He is feeling all right. He is a little sore, but we will see what the docs say."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.