KNOXVILLE- The Tennessee Volunteers seemed to be in control of their game against South Alabama Saturday afternoon as they built a 31-7 lead. But from that point on, the Vols were their own worst enemy.
The Jaguars took advantage of multiple mistakes by the Tennessee offense and made big plays against the defense and cut the lead all the way down to 31-24. It took a fourth down stop with less than two minutes to go in the game to secure the Tennessee win over their Sun Belt opponent.
“Every win is a good win and it’s extremely hard to win in college football, so we needed to get victory No. three and we got victory No. three,”
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said after the game. “I don’t think I’ve been in a game like that. You take the good and the bad from it. I like to look at the positive and we found a way to win.”
The Vols could muster only 144 yards of offense in the second half while the Jags rolled up 241 in the final two quarters. Despite the defensive woes, it would be a key stop that would give Tennessee the win. Facing a fourth and goal on the UT 8, freshman defensive lineman Corey Vareen put pressure on South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny who in turn threw a prayer into the end zone and into the waiting arms of UT safety Brian Randolph who picked it off to secure the Tennessee victory.
Raijon Neal had a big game for Tennessee (3-2) as he carried the ball 25 times for 169 yards and a touchdown. Justin Worley was 20-of-36 for 204 yards and two scores but was haunted by three interceptions. Randolph led the Volunteers’ defense with 12 tackles.
Metheny almost single-handedly led South Alabama (2-2) to an upset win. He was 21-of-42 for 234 yards and also rushed for 67 yards. He turned things around in the second half as 145 of his 234 yards came after halftime.
Tennessee pushed their lead to 31-7 when Neal scored on an 11-yard run. But that was when the Jags started to take advantage of the Volunteer’s miscues. After Brandon Bridge was intercepted by Brent Brewer at the USA 35, UT gave the ball right back on the next play when Worley was picked by Maleki Harris who returned it 58 yards to the Tennessee 10 yard line.
South Alabama found the end zone two plays later when Metheny ran in from two yards out to make it 31-14.
The Jags forced a three-and-out by Tennessee and scored on their next possession when Sunanon was true on a 24-yard field goal to make it 31-17.
Jones decided to go to his bag of tricks in the fourth quarter when the Vols lined up for a field goal but ran the fake when holder Tyler Drummer pitched the ball to kicker Michael Palardy who would have walked in for a touchdown. But the play was blown dead because of a false start.
Tennessee decided to try the 52-yard field goal but it was partially blocked, but not by the Jags. The ball was kicked into the hand of Drummer and Roman Buchanan was able to scoop up the miscue and return it 48 yards to the Tennessee 29 yard line. Six plays later, Cris Dinham scored from three yards out to make it 31-24.
“We had practiced the fake field goal all week,” Jones said of the trick play. “We had it but again, penalties change the game. I like to think the game would have been over but we jumped offsides.”
Metheny finished the opening drive of the game with a 32-yard run for a score that capped an 82-yard, six play drive. Aleem Sunanon’s point after was good. But from that point on, it was all Vols the rest of the first half.
UT got on the board first as Michael Palardy booted a 40-yard field goal. Worley found freshman A.J. Branisel for a two-yard touchdown on a drive that went 92 yards on only nine plays. Palardy’s kick made it 10-7.
Worley, who started the game rather sluggishly, continued to improve as the half went on and hooked up with Josh Smith for a 29-yard touchdown. After forcing a three-and-out by the Jaguars, Neal went crazy on the next drive for Tennessee as he caught a 13-yard pass from Worley and then broke off a run for 53 yards that set the Vols up deep in South Alabama territory at the seven.
Two plays later, Marlin Lane plunged in from two yards out to make it 24-7. That was the way the first half ended. Tennessee out-gained the Jaguars 338-151 in the first half and had 24 first downs compared to USA’s seven.
The brutal October schedule for Tennessee begins next week when they host Georgia. Then comes a home game against South Carolina and a road trip to defending national champion Alabama.
“Our players are intelligent and know what is at stake,” Jones said of next week’s Georgia game. “Georgia is a great football team but we have to concern ourselves with ourselves. If we turn the football over, we have zero chance. We have to take care of the football, be disciplined and we can’t make penalties. We have to tackle and play great complimentary football.”
-By Marlin Curnutt, Tribune Correspondent