KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee opened its season with a come-from-behind 20-13 overtime win over Appalachian State on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium.
It was a most unconventional victory, with the No. 9-ranked Vols (1-0) getting their winning points when Jalen Hurd recovered a Josh Dobbs fumble in the end zone.
Dobbs struggled throughout the night, finishing 16-of-29 passing for 192 yards with a touchdown and an interception while rushing nine times for minus-4 yards.
— Jesse Re Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) September 2, 2016
Tennessee’s defense sealed the win by holding the Sun Belt Conference’s upset-minded Mountaineers (0-1) on downs on the ensuing overtime possession, Micah Abernathy breaking up a Taylor Lamb (15 of 23, 108 yards, one TD, one interception) pass in the end zone.
The Vols next play Virginia Tech in the “Battle of Bristol” at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10.
Here are five things learned about Tennessee during its win over the Mountaineers before the crowd of 100,074:
Five things learned
1. Coach Butch Jones and his team talked a lot about being player-led, and that included some of the marquee players taking off practices to get rest and stay fresh during fall drills.
The Vols’ level of play suggested a coach-led team might have been a better option in preparation. Appalachian State looked like the tougher, better-drilled team throughout the action.
2. The Vols offensive line issues go deeper than just having an issue with depth. UT offensive tackles Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick had their hands full most of the night, with Richmond giving up a sack and Kendrick getting whistled for holding. The play inside at center and guard wasn’t better. Hurd had 110 yards rushing on 28 carries (3.9 per carry).
3. Tennessee needs more work on the deep ball, even with Josh Malone’s 67-yard touchdown reception. The Vols’ longest completion in the first half was 16 yards. Dobbs underthrew Josh Smith on a deep post resulting in an overturned call in the second quarter that took UT out of scoring position.
4. The Vols are resilient — and patient. Tennessee stuck with the run, pounding Hurd and then Alvin Kamara repeatedly even when trailing 13-3.
5. Officials are serious about the targeting rule. Jalen Reeves-Maybin had a small target when the ASU return man went to his knees to field a punt, but he was nonetheless disqualified from the contest for what officials deemed a personal four with three minutes left in the first quarter.
Turning point: Cam Sutton’s lunging interception of Taylor Lamb’s pass on third-and-12 from the UT 49 with 6:54 left and the Vols down 13-3 brought the stadium to life. Of course, it was also Sutton’s muffed punt on Appalachian State’s opening drive that set up the Mountaineers opening touchdown.
Question answered: Tennessee’s off-season conditioning and depth appeared to be the difference, as the Vols were able to rally to win in the fourth quarter.
Question looming: Is Tennessee a championship contender? Falling behind 13-3 to a Sun Belt Conference team in the season-opening game suggests the Vols are not as prepared as their preseason top 10 ranking suggested.
Statistically speaking: Appalachian State outrushed UT 184-127 and the Vols’ longest run of the night was 13 yards.
What it means: Tennessee has a lot of room for improvement.
The Vols looked soft and out of sync on both sides of the ball from the onset.
Appalachian State won at the line of scrimmage throughout much of the game, and tailback Marcus Cox (24 carries, 115 yards) ran through some would-be tacklers while Hurd struggled to break loose.
Tennessee’s passing game needs a great deal more work from a timing standpoint, and the run game needs more of a downhill element.
UT was not able to overpower Appalachian State despite having a size advantage.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.