KNOXVILLE — Less than 30 minutes after the horn sounded on Tennessee's season opener, a thunderstorm moved through Knoxville and dumped a torrential downpour of rain on Neyland Stadium.
Before that, though, it was the clearest of skies for the Volunteers and coach Butch Jones.
In a game tailor-made for a coaching debut, Tennessee hardly was challenged as it breezed past overmatched Austin Peay 45-0 in front of a crowd of 97,169.
"Everybody in Knoxville was anxious to see the Vols come out and play," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "I want to thank the fans for coming out and showing the support. We're just trying to work on being consistent and coming out with another win next week."
The Vols scored touchdowns on all six possessions of the first half and led 42-0 halftime, and the defense, much-maligned as it allowed 36 points per game a season ago, pitched the program's first shutout since 2011.
While there were smiles and satisfaction after the game, Jones and his players know what lies ahead this season.
"We're aware," said receiver Pig Howard, who caught an 11-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. "We're pretty aware. A lot of guys got to get their first touch on the ball. Some, their first game or their first catch.
"That boosts their confidence level and their experience."
"As you know," Jones said, "we're going to be challenged."
The Vols weren't challenged Saturday night against an FCS program that was 2-9 last season and playing its first game under coach Kirby Cannon. Tennessee gained 84 yards on its first six rushing attempts of the game. At halftime, the Vols held a 317-100 advantage in total offense, including an expected 213-15 advantage on the ground.
Tennessee went the entire game without committing a penalty and avoided turning the ball over until Alden Hill coughed up one in the fourth quarter.
"I wanted a clean game," Jones said.
"We talk about the plan to win, and in that plan to win is disciplined football," the coach added later. "We can't be a team that has untimely penalties, and I thought our players did a great job. As we continue to progress, we're going to be challenged even that much more."
Quarterback Justin Worley was efficient as the starter, completing all but two of his 13 passes and managing Tennessee's up-tempo offense.
"He controlled the line of scrimmage," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "That's the biggest thing you can ask from him. Didn't really have to turn around a lot to hear him. His voice, he did really well with that."
"I thought we were efficient," Jones said, "but, again, as the competition continues to grow, we have to be able to make the routine throws."
The Vols ran 73 plays for 447 yards despite holding the ball for 32 more seconds than Austin Peay.
"[The coaches] are always going to stress playing faster," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "You're never going to make them happy at that point, but I feel like we can play faster. There were some times we were late to the ball. I think he said we snapped it 16 times with 20-plus seconds on the play clock.
"We can try to get that number and try to disrupt some defenses."
In the second half, though, Tennessee managed just 130 yards of offense with backup quarterback Nathan Peterman and the second-team offensive line. Tailbacks Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane -- with a combined 179 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries -- joined Worley in watching from the sideline.
Freshman cornerback Malik Foreman, one of 12 players in Tennessee's 2013 recruiting class to play Saturday night, intercepted a pass inside the Vols' 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter that preserved the shutout.
"It feels great to finally go and play against somebody else and put on a performance like that," safety Byron Moore said. "It feels great. It's a new step forward in this new era. It's a big win for us, because it's the first one, and now we've just got to continue to improve."
While answering one question, senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood accidentally said "Western Kentucky" when he meant to mention Austin Peay. The Hilltoppers, led by former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, visit Knoxville in six days.
After that, Tennessee faces five top-10 teams in a six-game stretch.
"The more you win, the more that's at stake," Jones said. "We're going to be challenged with a really good football team coming in here. We're going to enjoy it, but we do have a lot of work to do.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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