KNOXVILLE — The third time was the charm for Malik Foreman.
After Austin Peay's sputtering passing game twice picked on the Tennessee freshman cornerback, the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School product exacted a measure of redemption for himself.
With the Governors' threatening to end the Volunteers' shutout bid, Foreman stepped in front of a Jacob Sexton pass inside Tennessee's 10 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"He was definitely excited," safety Byron Moore said after Tennessee's 45-0 season-opening win. "Coach got on him a little bit. He messed up a little bit, but he was able to still make a play on the ball. He was definitely happy [to make] the first pick."
Foreman is the first true freshman to intercept a pass in a season opener since Dwayne Goodrich, who memorably returned an interception for a touchdown in Tennessee's title-game win against Florida State in 1998, did it against UNLV in 1996.
On the play, the freshman kept his eyes on Sexton as he dropped into zone coverage, read where the ball was going and stepped in front of the pass as it appeared the Austin Peay receiver kept running when he should have stopped his route.
Earlier in the game, the Govs found success throwing at Foreman, a second-team corner who's next in line in case either one of Tennessee's starting corner tandem of Justin Coleman or Cam Sutton, also a freshman, are unavailable.
In the second quarter, there appeared to be a missed coverage on Foreman's side, which allowed Darryl Clack to get free for a 35-yard gain. In the third quarter, the 6-foot-6 Clack outjumped Foreman for a 33-yard reception. Foreman's interception ended that drive.
"They're very, very young and inexperienced, but very talented," first-year coach Butch Jones said of his freshman corner tandem of Sutton and Foreman. "They're extremely competitive. They have great competitive character, and I think that showed in Malik tonight.
"As we move forward, we're going to be tested even more. Will there be growing pains? Absolutely, but I thought today was a good fundamental start for our entire team."
Tennessee's defense proclaimed itself a confident bunch entering the season, and Jones said he could sense it in a unit that stumbled through last season's debacle.
The coach said his defense has worked "exceptionally hard," and it paid off in the program's first shutout since November 2011, when the Vols blanked Middle Tennessee State 24-0.
"We didn't have too many calls," Moore said, "so we were just lining up and playing football."
Defensive tackle Daniel Hood, who deflected and intercepted a pass in the first quarter and added another big hit to blow up a screen pass, said the Vols are more comfortable in the 4-3 scheme, which Tennessee abandoned last season.
"We really didn't know quite what [Austin Peay] would do, so we kept things pretty simple and played our techniques and it worked out well for us," he said. "I think it's one of the few [shutouts] we've had since I've been here. It was nice to come back and bounce back from what we had done last year and play a good defensive game."
Tailback Rajion Neal found no shortage of running room on Saturday night on the way to a 141-yard performance in the first game of his senior season. His 47-yard touchdown run on the Vols' opening possession was a career long, and he surpassed the 100-yard mark on his eighth carry.
All of his production came in the first half, and the total tied Arian Foster's first-half performance against Vanderbilt in 2005 for the sixth-best in a first half in Tennessee history.
"I think that's every running back's dream, to run behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC," he said. "They definitely gave me a great push and great reads. They just jump-started me the whole game and gave me something to work with every time."
Tennessee and Army were the only teams in the country to play a penalty-free game during the season's opening weekend, and the Vols registered their first flagless game since the 2007 SEC championship game loss to LSU.
"You win the game in your preparation throughout the course of the week," Jones said. "I knew that we had done all that we could do. We had exposed them to just about every situation.
"I was more concerned that we had overprepared them, but I could tell at the walk-through this morning that they had their look in their eye and they were ready."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...