KNOXVILLE — The afternoon should have been a relaxing one for Tennessee.
The Volunteers instead made it dramatic.
After appearing completely in control with a 24-point third-quarter lead, Tennessee needed safety Brian Randolph's interception in the end zone on a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line with less than two minutes left to preserve a 31-24 win against South Alabama on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
"Every win is a good win," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
"We needed to get to victory No. 3," he added. "We got to victory No. 3. It was a difficult process, but we got there."
It appeared Tennessee reached that point after marching down the field behind plays of 22, 13, 12 and 17 yards on its opening second-half possession, which ended in a Rajion Neal touchdown run that made it 31-7.
Tennessee linebacker Brent Brewer intercepted a tipped pass on the Jaguars' ensuing series, and it looked as if the Vols could flip on cruise control and coast to the win. But then came an interception and long return the other way, and two plays later South Alabama scored to cut its deficit to 17 points and turned its next possession into a field goal.
Stuck in neutral, Tennessee's offense managed just 68 yards after its fourth touchdown, and the Jaguars pulled within a touchdown with less than nine minutes left in the game.
"I hate to say it, but I believe we did [relax]," Vols senior defensive end Corey Miller said. "At the same time, that's something we've got to work on as a team. That's going to go down this week: working on not giving up and playing 60 minutes."
The Vols should have put the game away long before South Alabama, a program in its fifth year of existence and its first as a full-fledged Football Bowl Subdivision member, drove down the field late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Marlin Lane's touchdown run five minutes into the second quarter gave Tennessee a 24-7 lead, but the Vols' next two possessions ended in Justin Worley interceptions. Tennessee was in position for a long field goal on the first one, but Worley's throw into triple coverage was nicely grabbed by a diving Qudarius Ford at the goal line.
The second pickoff, with less than 30 seconds left on the clock, came after Tennessee drove to South Alabama's 2-yard line.
"Looking back on it, we had some missed opportunities," Worley said after completing 20 of his 36 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. "I threw the interception in the end zone, also another interception in the end zone before that -- just missed out on some opportunities. We're trying to give them the game, and they made it a game.
"It was a little nerve-rattling knowing we might have to go down in a two-minute situation and score, but our defense had our back and they had a great stop."
South Alabama, which also missed a field-goal try on the third play of the fourth quarter, took advantage of two short fields, but the Jaguars ate up chunks of yardage on their final drive, which began with nearly eight minutes still on the clock. Quarterback Ross Matheny, who ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns, completed two third-down passes in the possession.
A big chunk of the announced crowd of 87,226 already had hit the exits by the time the Jaguars reached Tennessee's 6-yard line and the Vols' defensive front stepped up.
"It's now or never," Miller said of his unit's mentality. "You've got to make a play or this might get ugly."
Miller sacked Matheny on second down and forced a short throw that gained just 6 yards on third down, and freshman Corey Vereen, who made his college debut at Florida a week earlier, hit Matheny as he was throwing into the end zone.
Randolph was there waiting to catch Tennessee's third interception of the day.
"We just knew we had to make a play," he said.
The Vols made plenty of errors, too. They have turned the ball over nine times the past two games, and they were flagged eight times Saturday for 43 yards. South Alabama ate up yards on slant routes and crossing patterns, and Matheny generated some big plays with his running ability.
"You can never relax," Jones said. "Great learning point. It's obviously better to teach and correct with a victory, and our players understand and they know.
"We found a way to win, and to me that's one of the first steps of learning how to win is managing your adversities, being resilient, persevering and finding a way to win. You look at all the great teams: They find ways to win football games. Maybe you don't bring your A-game, but you find a way to win, and I'm proud of our kids."
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 ...