KNOXVILLE — College football teams improve the most between their first and second games.
It’s an adage.
It’s certainly not the rule of law.
The No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers struggled throughout the first half of Saturday’s in-state matchup with Austin Peay, finding themselves in a 6-6 deadlock in the final minute of the second quarter before breaking free for a 30-13 triumph before a somewhat subdued sellout crowd of 101,915 inside Neyland Stadium. The Vols were not nearly as impressive as last weekend’s 49-13 opening rout of Virginia in Nashville, when they outgained the Cavaliers 499-201.
Midway through the second quarter against the Governors, a Football Championship Subdivision program, Tennessee trailed 6-3 and was getting outgained 120-59.
“The job for us is to be the best football team on the field every Saturday,” coach Josh Heupel said after his team improved to 2-0 this season and to 20-8 in his Tennessee tenure. “You walk off the field and you see the scoreboard, and you either accomplished that goal or you didn’t. We’ve got to reset and grow from this as we head into conference play. We’re going to need to be better than we were tonight.
“There were some things that we did really well. Defensively, after that first series, there were some positives. Offensively, with efficiency and effectiveness, it takes 11 guys operating as one, and there were times tonight when we were one or two guys off, and that’s how it ends up looking.”
Tennessee entered Saturday’s expected mismatch having waxed every previous FCS opponent or Group of Five foe under Heupel by the average score of 57-10, but the Vols didn’t take their first lead until a 6-yard quarterback draw by Joe Milton III with 15 seconds remaining in the second quarter put them up 13-6. The Vols opened the second half with a five-play, 66-yard drive that featured runs of 26 and 31 yards by Jaylen Wright and culminated with a 5-yard pass from Milton to Ramel Keyton for a 20-6 advantage.
Wright, who rushed 12 times for 115 yards versus Virginia, had 13 carries for 118 yards against the Governors, while Milton was 21-of-33 passing for 228 yards and two touchdowns.
“It didn’t start off the way we wanted to,” Milton said, “and just because it was Austin Peay, you can’t look at teams like that. You have to go out there and dominate every play no matter who’s out there.”
Austin Peay pulled within 23-13 with 9:01 remaining on a 52-yard touchdown pass from Mike DiLiello to Trey Goodman, who was all alone after Tennessee cornerback Doneiko Slaughter slipped. It took the Vols just 58 seconds to answer, as a 43-yard pass from Milton to tight end McCallan Castles capped the four-play, 75-yard drive.
The start of Saturday’s game was delayed 30 minutes by lightning and scratched the national anthem and Tennessee’s tradition of running through the “T.” The teams just entered the field after the delay, and the Pride of the Southland Band went straight to its seating area in the stadium.
“Being back in Neyland in front of the fans, obviously there were some jitters, but I don’t think it was anything different from last week,” senior running back Jabari Small said after his 13-carry, 95-yard day. “It was the second game of the year, so everything is still new. It’s a new team, so we’re just finding our identity.”
The Governors (0-2) struck first on Maddux Trujillo’s 45-yard field goal that capped an eight-play, 48-yard drive highlighted by DiLiello’s 45-yard quarterback keeper on a fourth-and-2 from Austin Peay’s 33-yard line. They would advance to Tennessee’s 16 on their opening possession before a blindside block penalty moved the ball back to the 31.
Tennessee managed just 18 yards through its first two possessions, but Warren Burrell recovered a fumbled punt by Kam Thomas at the Governors’ 13. Three plays netted only 2 yards for the Vols as their offensive woes continued, but Charles Campbell’s 28-yard field goal at the 5:51 mark of the opening quarter tied the game at 3.
The game remained deadlocked through the rest of the opening quarter, marking the first quarter that the Vols failed to score a touchdown since the third quarter of last November’s loss at Georgia. Tennessee opened the second quarter by going for it on fourth-and-3 at the Austin Peay 17, but Milton threw incomplete to Dont’e Thornton.
A 34-yard Trujillo field goal with 8:15 before halftime put the visitors from Clarksville back on top, 6-3, and capped a 12-play, 67-yard drive that consumed 6:39. Small broke free for a 38-yard run to the Governors’ 25 on Tennessee’s ensuing possession, but a holding penalty forced the Vols to settle on Campbell’s 37-yard field goal and a 6-6 score.
“Was it a win? Absolutely,” Heupel said. “Do we need to be a whole lot better? Yes. Absolutely, and in particular offensively.”
Tennessee will open Southeastern Conference play next weekend with a trip to Florida.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].