By Alex Norman
Well, that didn’t go as expected.
The ninth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers were supposed to open the 2016 season at Neyland Stadium with a convincing win over an Appalachian State team that, on paper, doesn’t have nearly the talent level as the Vols.
Instead, it was the underdog Mountaineers that outplayed their hosts for much of the evening on Thursday, September 1st. Still, the Vols escaped to a 20-13 victory, in overtime.
“I’ve never been part of a frustrating win. A win is a win,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones after the game. “In this profession you have 12 opportunities to win. Again, I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our players. I thought that they showed some resiliency. Again, we played a really good football team. You don’t win 17 out of 19 games if you’re not a good football team. I have the utmost respect for them. Did we do some things that were uncharacteristic? Absolutely. I can guarantee you this, we will get them corrected. I think there are a lot of great teaching points that came about that we have to get corrected. Again, we found a way to win.”
“We can play better, personally, as an offense and as a team,” said Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. “At the end of the day a win’s a win, and we’ll take it… I have a lot of respect for them (Appalachian State). We knew coming into the game that they were a team with high energy and has a nose for the football. Their defense stats boast for themselves and we definitely have a lot of respect for our opponent.”
The Mountaineers stunned the Vols early in the first quarter, when Mountaineers quarterback Taylor Lamb scored on a five yard touchdown run. A short 36 yard drive was set up when Tennessee senior defensive back Cam Sutton fumbled a punt.
The Vols would be forced to play catch-up most of the night.
Offensively the Vols looked nothing like the unit scoring points early and often in the Outback Bowl. In fact, the Vols were out-rushed by the Mountaineers 184 yards to 127. Tennessee prides itself on its rushing attack. And while Jalen Hurd did gain 110 yard on the ground, his teammate Alvin Kamara only gained 21 yards on 6 carriers.
“I thought if we outrushed them that we would win the game. Usually that happens,” said Appalachian State Head Coach Scott Satterfield. “We pride ourselves on running the football like they do. One of our goals was to outrush them. We are glad to get that goal. That is credit to our defense and offensive line. Marcus Cox had another big night tonight (115 yards on 24 carries). He has been doing that his whole career.”
Tennessee fans wishing that the Vols would take more chances in the passing game were rewarded with a key Dobbs to Josh Malone hookup of 67 yards and the game tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“That’s all we keep asking for. Just give us a chance,” said Malone. “We’re all just hungry to make plays out there. We have a lot of playmakers. We’re all seasoned. We’re just ready to go.”
The game was tied at 13 in overtime when a strange bounce went the Vols way. Dobbs was hit short of the goal line on third and goal from the 2. The ball popped free, and into the hands of Hurd. He was in the end zone recovering the fumble, giving Tennessee its first lead of the night at 20-13.
The Mountaineers still had a chance to tie the game and send it to a second overtime, or even score a touchdown and then go for two and the win. Instead, the Vols defensive stood tall, with Micah Abernathy breaking up a Lamb pass to Shaedon Meadors on 4th and 5 at the 20.
The good news for the Vols is that thanks to the early start to its season, they will have two more days to prepare for Virginia Tech at the “Battle at Bristol.” On Saturday, September 10th more than 150-thousand fans are expected to make their way to Bristol Motor Speedway for the biggest college football game ever.
A win over the Hokies might help make those early season struggles not quite as painful for the Vols.