Justin Worley threw two touchdown passes to Marquez North and ran for a third score Saturday as Tennessee tuned up for next week's trip to No. 4 Oklahoma with a 34-19 victory over Arkansas State
Tennessee is off to its fourth straight 2-0 start, though it has finished below .500 thus far in each year of that streak. The Volunteers are trying to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
"We're learning how to win," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Teams find ways to win football games when they don't play their best football, so I'm very proud of them that way, but make no mistake about it, we've got a long ways to go."
Worley threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to North in the second quarter and found him again for a 14-yard score in the third period. Worley also scored from 5 yards out late in the first half for his first career touchdown run. He went 22 of 38 for 247 yards with one interception.
Tennessee's Jalen Hurd added a 4-yard touchdown run and finished with 83 yards on 23 carries.
"Marquez has done a great job in practice throughout fall camp and dating back to the spring, as well of going up and getting balls in the end zone," Worley said. "It was good to see that transition from the practice field to the game field. He had an opportunity to go make a play, and he did."
Fredi Knighten scored on a 4-yard run and threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Tres Houston for Arkansas State (1-1). The Red Wolves' other touchdown came on DeKeathan Williams' 24-yard run.
Arkansas State has won a share of the last three Sun Belt titles, but it has struggled against major-conference teams such as Tennessee. In 45 attempts, the Red Wolves have never beaten an SEC team when it belonged to that conference, though the Red Wolves did beat Mississippi in 1915 and Texas A&M in 2008 when those schools played in other leagues. Those 45 games include two ties. Arkansas State's 18-14 triumph over Texas A&M in its 2008 season opener represents its last victory over a team from the Power 5 conferences.
Tennessee had cause for concern even after the victory. Wide receiver Von Pearson, who had a team-high 71 yards receiving on four catches, headed to the locker room on crutches in the second quarter and didn't return. Tight end Ethan Wolf also left the game in the second half. Jones had no immediate update on the severity of either injury.
Knighten's 4-yard touchdown run on Arkansas State's opening possession gave the Red Wolves a 6-0 lead — Luke Ferguson missed the extra point — but Tennessee held the versatile quarterback relatively in check from that point on. Knighten finished 21 of 34 for 166 yards and rushed for 65 yards on 14 carries. Knighten had even more pressure on him than usual to carry the offense because an injury limited running back Michael Gordon to seven carries.
"We just made a lot of mental errors," Knighten said. "If we don't make those, it's a whole different ballgame."
Worley completed his first nine passes as Tennessee recovered from that early 6-0 deficit by scoring 17 points on its next three drives.
Tennessee's effectiveness on third down made the difference. On Tennessee's second touchdown drive, Worley went 3 of 3 for 51 yards in third-down situations, including a 10-yard scoring strike to North on third-and-goal. Tennessee went 9 of 18 on third down — 9 of 14 in the first three quarters — while holding Arkansas State to 4 of 17 in those situations.
"The first thing that comes to mind is third-down conversions," Jones said. "We did a great job defensively of getting off the field on third down, and we were able to possess the ball offensively on third down."
Arkansas State continually hurt itself with mistakes. The Red Wolves were penalized nine times for 75 yards, with all of them coming in the first three quarters. Trailing 24-12 early in the third quarter, Arkansas State blew a shot at great field position when J.D. McKissic fumbled on a punt return at the Tennessee 36. On Tennessee's ensuing possession, Worley threw his second touchdown pass to North, who ended up with four catches for 68 yards.
"We just made too many mistakes to win," Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. "The turnover on the punt return came at a really tough time. We had a chance to swing momentum, and we didn't."