Tennessee came through like a champion on third down in Saturday’s 34-19 Game 2 defeat of Arkansas State. The Vols converted on 9 of 18 third-down tries while holding the Red Wolves to just 4 of 17 on third down. Tennessee’s head coach thought that was the “whole key” to the victory.
“We did a great job defensively getting off the field on third downs,” Butch Jones said. “We were able to possess the ball offensively on third down. Throughout the course of the game I thought our offense did a great job of not having three and outs.”
The obvious question: Why was the offense so efficient in those situations?
“In the first half I thought we had pretty good rhythm, especially on third down,” Jones said. “Some players made some plays off the ball in the air.”
Through two games Tennessee has been spectacular on money down. Counting an 8-of-18 third-down conversion rate in Game 1, the offense is a combined 17 of 36. That’s an eye-popping 47.2 percent success rate. Counting a 3-of-14 third-down conversion rate in Game 1, Tennessee’s defense has allowed a two-game total of 7 for 31. That’s a mere 22.6 percent conversion rate.
In addition to excelling on “money down,” Tennessee is showing quite a knack on fourth down. The Vols stonewalled Utah State for a one-yard loss on a fourth-and-one in Game 1. Game 2 saw the Big Orange come through twice more on fourth down. A.J. Johnson broke up a fourth-and-seven pass at UT’s 40-yard line with the outcome still unsettled in the third quarter. LaTroy Lewis dropped quarterback Fredi Knighten for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter to kill any comeback hoes ASU might have entertained.
VOLS PASS ‘GUT CHECK’
Tennessee’s 38-7 Game 1 blowout of Utah State was so easy that it might as well have been an intra-squad scrimmage. Conversely, Saturday’s 34-19 defeat of Arkansas State was a growth game – a struggle that forced the Vols to bow their necks and make some key plays in clutch situations.
GUT CHECK NO. 1: Arkansas State shredded Tennessee’s defense on the Red Wolves’ opening possession, zooming 40 yards in six plays for a touchdown that silenced the crowd and put Vol defenders on their heels. It was a lot like watching a boxer get his nose bloodied by an underdog opponent in the first round of a fight. To their credit, the Vols wiped away the blood and started launching some haymakers of their own. Five plays after Tennessee found itself down 6-0 Justin Worley threw over the middle to electrifying Von Pearson, who raced downfield to complete a 56-yard gainer to the ASU 8-yard line. A field goal trimmed the deficit to 6-3 four plays later.
GUT CHECK NO. 2: After being shown up on ASU’s first possession, Tennessee’s defense stepped up on Possession No. 2, forcing a three-and-out. The offense parlayed that momentum into a 10-play, 70-yard drive that put the home team on top 10-6. The next Vol possession was a virtual replay – a 10-play, 77-yard march that pushed the lead to 17-6.
GUT CHECK NO. 3: Arkansas State reclaimed the momentum with a 72-yard touchdown march that whittled the deficit to 17-12 but Tennessee’s offense answered the challenge. A super throw from Justin Worley to Marquez North picked up 24 yards in a 71-yard drive that bumped the lead to 24-12 with 1:20 left to halftime.
GUT CHECK NO. 4: A spectacular 14-yard TD catch by North pushed the lead to 31-12 in the third quarter but Arkansas State wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. The Red Wolves put together an 11-play, 83-yard drive and closed to 31-19 with 10 minutes left. Alex Elllis recovered an onside kick at this point or the Vols could’ve been in serious trouble.
GUT CHECK NO. 5: After missing a 35-yard field with 4:02 left, freshman Aaron Medley got a chance to redeem himself with 1:41 left. He connected from 38 yards this time, pushing the lead to 34-19 and showing the kind of mental resilience that separates the clutch kickers from the rest.
RUNNING WITH THE HURD
After rushing 11 times for just 29 yards in Game 1, Vol freshman Jalen Hurd saw a little more running room in Game 2 … and fans saw a little more of the skills that made the 6-foot-3, 227-pounder one of America’s most heralded prospects as a high schooler.
Hurd carried 23 times for 83 net yards versus Arkansas State. After scoring his first college touchdown on a pass reception last week, he scored his first rushing TD on a four-yard first-quarter run in Game 2.
"It felt great,” he said. “It really did. My wide receivers did a great job blocking on that play, and my offensive line did even better."
Hurd was a decoy on a subsequent five-yard touchdown run by Vol quarterback Justin Worley, carrying out his fake so convincingly that he took quite a shot from an Arkansas State defender.
"It was a good read,” he said. “The linebacker came up and hit me right in the hole. Worley can run. Nobody knows it, but he can run."
Butch Jones, per the university