KNOXVILLE - It was set up so perfectly for the Utah State Aggies. They had a chance to come into Neyland Stadium and finally win the big game against a major team, kick off quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s Heisman campaign and send a message they are the team to watch in the Mountain West.
But checking off all those goals proved much harder to accomplish than the Aggies imagined as a youthful but energized Tennessee team stuffed those hopes with a stingy defense and timely offense in a 38-7 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 102,455.
In short » The Aggies drop to 1-17 against the SEC as the Vols win their 19th straight season opener at home.
Key moment » The Aggies fumble a kickoff return and Tennessee scores on its next play to go up 14-0 just six minutes into the game.
Key stat » Utah State converts just 3 of 14 third-down attempts and fails at a fourth-and-1 attempt.
Instead of being the ‘break-through win,’ or ‘signature victory,’ they were hoping for, the Aggies used words like ‘humbling,’ and being ‘destroyed,’ to describe the loss.
"There was absolutely nothing good that came out of that game," Utah State coach Matt Wells said.
The last time the Aggies were manhandled in such a way was in 2010 when they lost to Boise State 50-14, but at least the Broncos were the ninth-ranked team in the country at the time.
This Vols’ team is supposedly rebuilding, indicative by the school record 20 freshmen used in Sunday’s contest. But if the Vols are rebuilding and handled the Aggies so well, where does that leave Utah State?
It’s a question the Aggies must answer quickly, before hosting Idaho State in the home opener Saturday.
"We have to have a short memory," said offensive lineman Kevin Whimpey, shortly after admitting the Vols destroyed the Aggies. "Are we going to be as resilient as last year’s team? That is what we are going to find out against Idaho State."
The battle of the quarterbacks - Keeton and the anointed starter in Tennessee’s Justin Worley - never took form thanks to the play of the Vols.
Keeton, playing in his first game since injuring his knee against BYU on Oct. 4, produced some of his typical razzle dazzle moments, scampering for an 11-yard gain at one point then scrambling to keep another play alive to complete a pass.
However, the big plays were too few and too far in between to produce sustained drives. His receivers dropped two catchable balls in the first half and the run game was never able to produce much against a Tennessee defense that clogged the middle of the field.
The Aggies’ offense was just 3-of-14 on third down conversions and didn’t cross midfield until the third quarter.
Keeton finished the game 18-of-35 for 144 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions while Worley was 27-of-38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns.
Keeton was not made available to media members following the game, but Wells said much of Keeton’s play was because he was a ‘competitor.’
"Sometimes you over-compensate whether it’s a breakdown in protection or pressure," Wells said.
Ultimately, the only stats that really mattered to the USU players, particularly the seniors, was the Aggies’ 1-17 record against the SEC and the 0-4 mark against Wisconsin, Oklahoma, USC and Auburn in recent seasons. The lone win against the SEC was back in 1970 against Kentucky, before coach Matt Wells was born, he noted earlier.
While Wells was careful to not put too much emphasis on the opener, noting the program’s accomplishments in recent years, Utah State’s players saw the game as a chance to show they could not only play BCS teams to close results, but beat them.
That they not only lost but lost in such surprising fashion left the Aggies stunned.
"That wasn’t Aggie State football," Whimpey said.
Yet even as the Aggies tried to fathom such a loss, Wells was doing his best to get his team back on track.
"It was an opportunity to beat an SEC team and nothing more," he said. "The intention was to compete and we did compete for a while. It was a complete shock we weren’t in the ball game in the fourth quarter, but this has no bearing on the rest of the season. I’d probably be saying that if we won the game too."
But the tone would be different, much, much different, if the Aggies had won.
Tennessee 38,Utah State 7
USU 0 0 0 7 — 7
Tenn. 14 3 7 14 — 38
Tenn » Howard 8 run (Medley kick), 9:23.
Tenn » Downs 12 pass from Worley (Medley kick), 9:09.
Tenn » FG Medley 36, 1:00.
Tenn » Pearson 14 pass from Worley (Medley kick), 5:31.
Tenn » Hurd 15 pass from Worley (Medley kick), 14:51.
USU » Sharp 37 pass from Keeton (Diaz kick), 14:16.
Tenn » Lane 7 run (Medley kick), 10:36.
Attendance » 102,455.
First downs 11 24
Rushes-yards 24-100 39-110
Passing 144 273
Comp-Att-Int 18-35-2 28-40-0
Return Yards 6 23
Punts-Avg. 8-37.8 8-37.3
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 5-42 6-40
Time of Possession 25:25 31:01
Rushing » Utah St., Natson 2-47, Hill 9-22, Hunt 4-17, Keeton 8-12,
Hall 1-2. Tennessee, Lane 11-41, Hurd 11-29, Worley 6-14, Pickett 4-11,
Howard 2-9, Young 1-6, Summerhill 3-5, Team 1-(minus 5).
Passing » Utah St., Keeton 18-35-2-144. Tennessee,
Worley 27-38-0-273, Peterman 1-1-0-0, Howard 0-1-0-0.
Receiving » Utah St., Swindall 5-37, Butler 3-29, Natson 3-18,
Sharp 2-37, Houston 2-13, Hill 2-1, Robinson 1-9. Tennessee,
Howard 6-37, North 4-38, J.Smith 3-48, Pearson 3-27, Wolf 3-26,
Croom 2-41, Malone 2-26, Hurd 2-16, Downs 1-12, Lane 1-2, Helm 1-0.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.