With Tennessee going three and out to start the game, the Utah State Aggies football team looked like it was in business. On the road, in front of 102,000 fans at Tennessee in historic Neyland Stadium--the place where Peyton Manning starred--Utah State had the dream start it needed.
Then it all became a nightmare, as the Vols stomped the Aggies 38-7 before a national TV audience on ESPN Sun. Aug. 31, putting a severe damper on the #Chuckie4Heisman campaign--and possibly even ending the college career of Utah State's top linebacker.
The game began well enough for Utah State. The Aggies went on offense for the first time, and even that looked good. Chuckie Keeton, back for his first game since his ACL and MCL were torn last October, reared back and found Brandon Swindall for an 8-yard gain on a hitch pattern.
The problem was, an Aggie player cut block his Tennessee defender--resulting in a 10-yard penalty. Joe Hill, another Aggie star who couldn't play last year due to injury, got his first carry on the next play--for minus-5 yards. 'Ol Chuckie went back to the proverbial well and found Swindall on another hitch route for eight yards, bringing up third down and 9.
Chuckie again looked for Swindall on the next play--and found nobody. Utah State punted, and the game was never the same. How could it have been in SEC country? Tennessee played the rest of the game like Utah does every time it plays the Aggies--running misdirection pass plays, then slamming the ball up Utah State's middle that softens with each carry.
That's all Tennessee did on the next drive, leaving journalists to utter one word phrases like "Wow" on Twitter and Aggie fans to resign themselves to the fact that even with a Heisman Trophy campaign going on strong, Utah State had no chance.
Not when Tennessee's freshman stud running back, Jalen Hurd, weighs as much as the Utah State linebacker--or All-American candidate Kyler Fackrell--assigned to tackle him. Hurd literally outlined the entire Vols game plan on third down and 5 from the Tennessee 47, going off-tackle as he carried three Aggies with him past the first down marker for seven yards.
On the next play came--you guessed it--a misdirection play off of play action in which Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley rolled out and found his giant tight end running in a seam for a 38-yard gain. It looked so much like a Jon Hays-to-Jake Murphy play that Utah ran for a TD against the Aggies several years ago that it was ridiculous.
Then, with the Aggies expecting the pass, the Vols ran a speedy receiver out on a fly sweep for an 8-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. The wounds that mighty Tennessee inflicted upon its visitors were already opened and gaping as the Aggies lined up to return the kickoff.
Kennedy Williams caught the kick from the orange and white checkerboard pattern in his own end zone. If the last name sounds familiar, it is. His brother is Kerwynn Williams, the Aggie running back great now in the NFL. Kennedy himself is just a sophomore, having returned just one kick in his career, a 44-yarder against Weber State. Those are just the facts.
Here's another: Williams got the ball from about five yards inside his own end zone. Common sense tells you to take a knee and get the ball at the 20. But when you're a sophomore, you don't always think as clearly as players who have lived and learned to fight another day.
To put it in perspective, the other team just scored a touchdown, one that could be characterized--even in the early going--as debilitating. Yet young guys have short memories, and Williams thought he had daylight, right?
Williams, all of 5-foot-8-inches and 160 pounds, had a good head of steam as he ran to about the 10-yard line. That's when Tennessee's special teams came flying down the field, ready to hit something. Williams juked the first guy with ease, dancing to his left, but that's when the second wave of Vols hit.
They spun Williams backward several yards--and one player, senior A.J. Johnson speared the arm with which Williams was carrying the football with his helmet. The ball squirted out, onto the Neyland Stadium turf. Tennessee ball. Not good for the Aggies.
On the next play, Worley dropped back in his pro-style set--one Norm Chow, the ol Utes ball coach, would approve. Worley faked the handoff, rolled right, and just like the first misdirection pass play, this one also resulted in positive yardage to a tight end--and a touchdown.
Utah State was down 14-0, in a hostile environment, and only six minutes had been played. But the Aggies defense is something to behold this year. Despite being in a 102,000-seat stadium bathed in orange, and despite returning three defensive starters, Utah State didn't allow Tennessee to score a single point for the rest of the first quarter--and allowed just a field goal into halftime.
Utah State even had a chance to get points and cut a 17-0 lead to 17-3 early in the third quarter, but kicker Josh Thompson--who famously missed the game-winner at Wisconsin--had enough leg but drilled it wide left from 48 yards out.
That's when Tennessee put the game away with a brutal 69-yard drive lasting six minutes. Every time the Utah State defense thought the Vols were running, they'd pass--and vice versa. By the time this clock-killing, momentum-stifling chess match on grass ended, Tennessee dinked and dunked its way down the field in 13 plays--the longest play going for 14 yards, the touchdown-clinching pass at that.
The Vols would score two more touchdowns in the fourth--and Utah State would get on the board as well following a 38-yard gain on an end-around by Jojo Natson--and a 37-yard pass from Keeton on the next play to wide receiver Hunter Sharp.
In sum, the Aggies were outplayed from start to finish in every phase of the game. On offense, Keeton threw for 144 yards on 18-of-35 passing attempts--and ran for a paltry 12 yards on eight carries. Hill had nine carries for 32 yards.
Worley fared much better for the Vols of the mighty SEC, managing the game similar to Utah's QB when the Pac-12 Utes manhandled the Aggies. He threw for 273 yards and three TDs on 27-of-38 completions. Tennessee didn't have a 100-yard rusher--but it didn't need one.
On defense, the fear is that Aggies linebacker Kyler Fackrell may be lost for the year to a knee injury. Tests are forthcoming. But any high points for Utah State came from the linebackers Vigil, Nick and Zach, who went for 15 and 10 tackles--never a good thing when you're playing any team from a Power 5 conference, however.
"Obviously, it was a very humbling defeat," USU head coach Matt Wells said post-game. "Credit to Tennessee, they came out and executed very nicely early in the game. We gave them some opportunities inside the 20, they took advantage of them and when you score touchdowns in the red zone, that's what happens."