KNOXVILLE – South Alabama didn’t begin playing football until after Phillip Fulmer was fired, and Tennessee has looked like a novice most of that time.
First-year coach Butch Jones is the third man in five seasons trying to fill Fulmer’s shoes, and his honeymoon is all but over after the Volunteers had to escape against South Alabama with a 31-24 victory in Neyland Stadium.
Seeing a fledgling program nearly defeat one of the most tradition-rich was part of a strange scene. The Vols (3-2), already leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter, had a false start on a fake field goal and then saw their holder, Tyler Drummer, block Michael Palardy’s ensuing field goal attempt by not clearing his front hand.
Even weirder was what looked like a crowd of around 80,000 (announced attendance was 87,266) steadily declining while the Jaguars steadily came back from a 31-7 deficit. Over half the spectators had surely left by the time USA had a first-and-goal at the 7 while trailing 31-24 with 3:20 remaining.
And many of the fans who bothered to stay evidently did so to boo quarterback Justin Worley and/or Jones’ decision not to replace him.
Beginning late in the second quarter, Worley threw three interceptions in a four-series span. Two of those were picked off in the end zone.
“I mean, throwing a pick, especially in the end zone when we’re driving late in the second quarter, it hurts,” Worley said. “It kind of rattles you a little bit.”
His first end zone interception went into an area with three Jaguars defenders and the next one came on a short throw with 17 seconds left in the half.
Receiver Pig Howard apparently was at least partially to blame for the second one.
“We repped it several times throughout the week and just a little miscommunication between Pig and I,” Worley said. “I was expecting him to run out of his break, and he, I guess, he read the defense and sat it down.”
But Worley’s other picks and numerous inaccurate throws were enough for many on Rocky Top, especially after Worley’s two interceptions in the second half of last week’s loss at Florida.
Tennessee was favored by 17 points, and Jones told the Vol Network prior to the game that he’d like to get his true freshmen quarterbacks (Riley Ferguson, Joshua Dobbs) some work if the situation presented itself. But Jones said he didn’t think about benching Worley.
“Again, when the quarterbacks are ready,” Jones said, “and we think they’re ready – and we’ve been doing this a long time – we’ll let ‘em. … First and foremost, you know, we live in a week-to-week society in college football. And it’s all about winning this game. And if I had put one of the freshmen in and we lost the game you all would be sitting here saying to me, ‘Why did you put the freshman in?’ See, that’s … the power of second-guessing. …
“I want to make sure they’re ready to go. And yeah, we do have to get them reps, but this was the first week we tried to simulate as many game-like conditions in practice and we’ll continue to do that. But at the end of the game I believed in Justin, and even throughout the course of the game. And you know, Justin needs as many repetitions just like the freshmen do.”
Worley was pleased to hear that he wasn’t near the end of his leash at any point Saturday.
“Hearing him (Jones) say that he’s got my back like that – that means a lot,” Worley said.
Worley finished 20 of 36 for 204 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
“You know, playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee, there’s a lot that comes with that,” Jones said. “And he’s learning as we go. But I thought he showed some resiliency today.”
Certainly, it was more than most of the Tennessee fans wanted to see.
Notes: Dobyns-Bennett graduate Devaun Swafford started Saturday. He is the fourth true freshman to start this season. The others are Cameron Sutton, Marquez North and Cameron Sutton. … Greeneville High School’s band played at halftime with Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band, as did Murfreesboro Siegel’s.