It wasn’t the start that Tennessee wanted. However, they warmed up when it mattered.
The Volunteers moved to 2-0 on the season with a 34-19 victory over Arkansas State on Saturday in Neyland Stadium.
For the Vols, the game was won on third down.
“I thought the whole key when you really look at it in a nutshell, when you summarize it, the first thing that comes to mind were third down conversions,” Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones said. “We did a great job defensively getting off the field on third downs. We were able to possess the ball offensively on third down. Throughout the course of the game, I thought our offense did a great job of not having three and out.”
Tennessee held the Red Wolves to just 4-of-17 on third down while the Volunteer offensive unit went 9-of-18 on third down.
“A win is a win and it’s a great win against a very quality opponent that challenges you,” Jones said. “I thought our players grew up a little bit today.”
Offensively, Marquez North caught two touchdown passes, while Justin Worley, who started the game 8-for-8, went 22-of-38 for 247 yards.
“Well, I know he’d like to have the one (interception) back, but he’s done a great job,” Jones said of Worley. “He is playing poised. He is calm. He’s collective. He’s getting us in the right plays. He is leading. He has a commanding presence about himself. And, he is not getting rattled. I’ve been really, really pleased with his performance.”
In the early going, it looked like it might be the Red Wolves day to roam in Neyland Stadium. ASU forced Tennessee off the field on a three-and-out, and then Fredi Knighten scored the game’s first points on a four-yard run.
However, the Vols answered with a Aaron Medley 20-yard field goal. Tennessee took the lead on a four-yard touchdown run by Jalen Hurd, and North caught his first touchdown pass of the day early in the first to push Tennessee to a 17-6 lead.
Knighten put the Red Wolves on the board again with a nine-yard pass to Tres Houston. However, Worley marched the Volunteer offense down the field as he capped off the drive with a five-yard run to push Tennessee to a 24-12 lead at the half.
In the second half, North scored his second touchdown with an impressive catch in the endzone. Arkansas State tried to rally in the fourth after a DeKeathan Williams 24-yard touchdown run. However, the Vols recovered the onside and held on to move to 2-0 for the fourth straight year.
While the Vols have questions to answer as they prepare to head to Oklahoma next weekend, the biggest questions may be the status of freshman Ethan Wolfe and Von Pearson who left the game on Saturday due to injury. However, Tennessee saw players step up all game long.
“They are both in the locker room,” Jones said of Wolf and Pearson. “I will probably know a little bit more by tonight or tomorrow. I thought Marquez North really sparked us and really made some big plays. I thought our receivers, particularly in the first half, really played the ball well in the air; they came down and made some great plays. Another thing is red zone efficiency and scoring touchdowns in the red zone opposed to kicking field goals. That is absolutely critical and we were six out of seven with one missed field goal at the end of the game, which is inexcusable. I thought we did a great job also in the red zone.”