Vols whip Fresno State 24-6

After a one-year absence, the big play apparently has returned to Tennessee's offense.

James Banks made an acrobatic 36-yard reception to set up the first touchdown and Jabari Davis bolted 44 yards to score the second as the Vols subdued spunky Fresno State 24-6 in Saturday's season opener at Neyland Stadium. The Big Orange also got two 25-yard runs and a 20-yarder from Cedric Houston. Gerald Riggs chipped in a 20-yard run that set up Tennessee's third touchdown.

The Vols also got a big play from the kicking game. A 29-yard punt return by Mark Jones set up a James Wilhoit field goal that widened the gap to 24-0 early in the fourth quarter.

Fresno's lone score came on an 81-yard interception return by Richard Marshall.

Tennessee's offensive line opened gaping holes for Vol backs. Houston rushed for a career-high 161 yards on 19 carries, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. Davis added 84 yards on 12 carries, an average of 7.0 per carry. Riggs chipped in 26 yards on four rushes, an average of 6.5 per try.

Houston, whose weight is down 10 pounds from last year, said he ''missed a read'' on UT's first scrimmage play but added that he believes he is ''reading holes better and running harder this year.''

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Houston ''did a tremendous job of making people miss, finding some holes and getting through there. And the offensive line knocked the line of scrimmage back. We didn't have people hitting him (Houston) in the backfield. It was nice to be able to run the ball.''

Asked about the line's physical play, offensive tackle Michael Munoz said the blockers ''really made that an emphasis during the offseason. Everybody was on a man and this guy (Houston) was running incredibly hard. Today was a great example of a team win. Everybody was pulling their own weight and we met our objective.''

Houston was stuffed for no gain on Tennessee's first offensive play, but the Vols went to the air and enjoyed great success. Casey Clausen completed four of six passes -- three of them going to Banks -- as the Big Orange moved 76 yards in eight plays to score on their first possession.

The success Tennessee enjoyed passing the ball on that first drive loosened up Fresno's defense, enabling Houston to run gain 120 yards on 11 first-half carries. Head coach Phillip Fulmer noted that UT was able to exploit the Bulldogs because it ''spread them out with the pass. We should make any team pay for pressing down that hard with the safeties.''

As strong as Tennessee's rushing offense was, its rushing defense was even stronger. The Vols limited Fresno to minus-1 yard on 24 carries. This marked the first time since the 1998 Florida game that the Big Orange held an opponent to minus rushing yardage for an entire game.

Fulmer conceded that the stop unit ''took a step'' but said his defensive concerns were ''not completely'' alleviated by the Game 1 performance.

Incredibly, Fresno's longest run from scrimmage was nine yards, and it was on an end-around by superstar receiver Bernard Berrian. That had Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis smiling.

''I thought our tackling was good because we didn't have very many plays that broke for big yardage,'' he said. ''We held 'em to four first downs the entire ball game, and you've got to be excited about that. But we'll keep things in perspective. We're not where we need to be as a defense yet. We've got a lot of room for growth.''

Tennessee's pass rush was surprisingly good, as well, recording seven sacks for 31 yards in losses. As a result, Fresno QB Jeff Grady was able to pass for just 118 yards. Berrian was limited to three catches for 28 yards.

''He's a really talented guy,'' Chavis said. ''The quarterback didn't have much time and we didn't get challenged as much as we anticipated because our pressure was a little better than we thought.''

Although Tennessee dominated the first 40 minutes of play, two missed field goals by redshirt freshman James Wilhoit left the Vols with a scant 14-0 lead. A shanked punt Fresno freshman Mike Lingua gave UT the ball at the visitors' 28-yard line late in the third period, however, and Clausen hit Tony Brown with a five-yard TD pass moments later to provide some breathing room.

''We could've knocked 'em out -- SHOULD'VE knocked 'em out -- earlier than we did,'' Fulmer conceded.

Atoning for his earlier misses from 30 and 34 yards, Wilhoit finally put the game away with a 40-yard field goal early in the fourth period.

''Our young kicker grew up a little bit,'' Fulmer said.

Clausen ran hot and cold. He completed 18 of 31 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions -- the last giving Fresno its only points of the game.

''Casey managed the game pretty well but I don't think he threw particularly well,'' Fulmer said. ''You can't throw an 'out' late.''

In Clausen's defense, the head man subsequently noted that Tennessee's receivers ''fooled him several times.''

Banks finished with a game-high 80 receiving yards on seven catches. Asked if the converted quarterback answered questions about his receiving skills, Sanders shrugged.

''He answered SOME of them,'' Sanders said. ''He didn't answer them as forcefully as I was hoping. He's obviously a guy with the ability to make some plays.''

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the game was the sterling play of three Vol defenders who were felled by knee injuries in 2002 -- defensive end Constantin Ritzmann, linebackers Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon.

''Ritzmann, on a third down, gets a big sack that takes them (Bulldogs) out of field-goal range,'' Fulmer said. ''Kevin Burnett was all over the place. And Kevin Simon made some big plays in the game.''

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