KNOXVILLE — An ugly start and a nervous finish covered up some of the good done by the Tennessee defense Saturday.
The Volunteers allowed 392 yards and 24 points to South Alabama in their 31-24 win at Neyland Stadium, though the Jaguars capitalized on very short fields for two touchdowns.
"I think we played well, but there's a lot of things we have to get fixed and corrected," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said after his five-tackle performance. "We were put in bad situations, but that's no excuse. We're a team, so no matter what we've got, we've got to come out and stop them.
"No matter what the situation is, no matter where we're at on the field, we've got to make a stand."
South Alabama's opening and final drives looked eerily similar, as the Jaguars used a mixture of tempo, routes over the middle of the field and a running quarterback to gash the Vols. On its opening drive, South Alabama hit on quick passes that gained 10 and 11 yards and a 28-yard completion to Shavarez Smith on a slant route.
One play after that, quarterback Ross Matheny ran through a gaping hole for a 32-yard touchdown.
Of the Jaguars' 151 first-half yards, 82 came on that drive, and on South Alabama's next six possessions, Tennessee turned a LaDarrell McNeil interception into a field goal and forced five punts.
"I think we settled down," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "They went through their script, and they did a great job. A lot of lateral-type plays, getting the ball out on the perimeter, spitting the ball out there fast, making our defense run sideline to sideline. Any time you add a running quarterback to the mix, it adds another dynamic."
South Alabama needed just 5 yards to score after an interception, and its third touchdown came after Roman Buchanan returned a loose ball on a Tennessee field-goal attempt to the Vols' 29-yard line.
The Jaguars had gains of 13, 13, 11, 14 and 12 yards on their final drive before the Vols bowed up for the game-saving stops.
"I still knew they had to score," Sapp said. "As long as they didn't get in the end zone, that was OK. We just can't get rattled."
'We had it'
"We had it," Jones said after Tennessee had a fake field goal negated by a false-start penalty in the fourth quarter.
The Vols lined up for a 47-yard kick when holder Tyler Drummer took the snap and ran an option to the right with kicker Michael Palardy, who had an excellent game with two punts of 50-plus yards, four touchbacks on kickoffs and a 40-yard field goal.
Palardy appeared to be in the clear when the play was whistled dead, and then his try from 52 yards hit Drummer's left hand and fluttered about 10 yards.
"We had practiced it all week," Jones said. "They were in an overload situation. We had it."
On the run
The Neyland Stadium crowd let out a Bronx cheer when quarterback Justin Worley kept the ball on a zone-read play and picked up 10 yards early in the second quarter. The junior later did the same and gained 13 yards.
"I finally had some pull keys," Worley said. "A lot of teams in the past couple of weeks were playing both the running back and quarterback. This week they pursuing hard to the running back, especially after some of those big runs in certain situations.
"It was good to run the ball a little bit."
Jones' system typically has relied on a running quarterback, and though Worley isn't the fastest, he can pick his spots and pick up yardage if defenses are keying on Tennessee's tailback. On a handful of runs, it looks like Worley could pick up a chunk of yards if kept the ball, but it's not always that simple.
"Sometimes that happens, and you're like, 'Ah, I might have been able to keep that,'" he explained. "But for the most part, you'll have a safety coming down to fit on a gap that you're running to, or a situation like that where it may have looked like there was something there, but chances are there wasn't."
Tailback Marlin Lane left the game in the second quarter with what Jones later called a "lower extremity" injury.
"We won't know his status until probably the middle of the week," Jones added.
With Lane on the sideline, Rajion Neal got 25 carries and Tom Smith ran three times for 27 yards.
Cornerbacks Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones practiced during the week, but neither played Saturday. Backup center Mack Crowder (thigh) also remained out. Reserve linebacker Raiques Crump returned to his special-teams role after missing the past three games.
Charles Mosley, a four-star lineman from Brighton High School outside of Memphis, was on campus for Saturday's game. The 6-foot-5, 345-pounder is the sixth-ranked player in Tennessee, according to 247sports.com. He was in Knoxville last month for one of Tennessee's preseason practices.
Mosley's finalists are Tennessee and Alabama, and he also holds scholarship offers from Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, among others.
Tennessee's captains for the game were linebackers Sapp and A.J. Johnson, right guard Zach Fulton and Palardy. ... Lane's 54-yard run in the first quarter was the longest by a Tennessee running back since Tauren Poole's 59-yard touchdown run against Alabama in 2010. ... With tight end A.J. Branisel and receiver Josh Smith's first-half touchdown receptions, the Vols had two true freshmen catch touchdown passes in the same game for the first time since 2010, when Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers caught scoring passes at Memphis. ... Devaun Swafford started at nickelback, making him the fourth true freshman to start for Tennessee this season.
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 ...