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Tennessee fans surround football players during the Vol Walk before an NCAA college football game against Utah State, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau)
Kurt Kragthorpe: Utah State falls apart on Tennessee’s big stage

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 31 2014 09:50 pm • Last Updated Aug 31 2014 11:16 pm

Knoxville, Tenn.

The skies cleared, Utah State linebacker Nick Vigil sacked Tennessee’s quarterback and Aggie QB Chuckie Keeton completed his first pass attempt in a game in nearly 11 months.

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USU’s football season started wonderfully Sunday night. And then everything crumbled.

A penalty flag fell on that first offensive play, kickoff returner Kennedy Williams lost a fumble and Joe Hill was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run.

Nothing that happened in a 38-7 loss to the Volunteers at historic Neyland Stadium in front of 100,000-plus fans wearing orange should radically alter the perception of USU as a Mountain West contender. But whatever hopes USU harbored of making any national impact were crushed in this big-boy football environment of the Southeastern Conference. Keeton’s Heisman Trophy campaign fluttered through the air and helplessly to the turf, just like the ball that slipped out of his hand in the first quarter.

Tennessee held Keeton to 156 yards of passing and running, while continually pressuring him and intercepting him twice.

"All I can say is it’s not the Utah State Aggies I’m accustomed to," said offensive tackle Kevin Whimpey.

In the process, USU lost a lot of credibility back home in Utah and across the country. The way the Aggies had performed in recent years at Oklahoma, Auburn, Wisconsin and USC, they made everyone forget the reason these games were scheduled — to make money for USU and give the Power 5 team an easy victory.

This time, for a change, USU played along with the script. Apparently, the Aggies really were tired of coming so close in losses to name-brand opponents.

Coach Matt Wells conceded nothing about the game’s impact on USU’s season, but spoke of "a very humbling defeat" and his "complete shock" that his team was not more competitive against Tennessee. The Aggies believed they had grown beyond the point of having something like this happen to them.

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Keeton will produce some nice numbers against the bulk of USU’s schedule, but he needed much more help against Tennessee than his offensive teammates could provide. The Vols continually pressured him, reinforcing USU’s replacement of four starters on the line as an issue that deserved more preseason focus. And the Aggie receivers failed to help Keeton in the first half when they could have made some routine catches.

Those "elite standards" of offense that Wells referenced recently? The Aggies sure couldn’t live up to them on this stage, failing to cross the 50-yard line in the first half and being shut out for three quarters.

Keeton looked spry and elusive in his return from knee surgery, but the Vols were always in his face, disrupting the timing of the passing game.

He had joked about the line’s struggles in practice enabling him to work on his scrambling skills, but this episode was not funny at all.

USU’s offensive line was overwhelmed in the running game and in pass protection — not so much physically, but in assignment breakdowns that "make the whole group look bad," Wells said.

Whimpey, the line’s only returning starter, said he figured "we were further along than our performance showed, but we were not."

Beyond that, the receivers dropped passes and Wells managed the game oddly. He authorized the failed fourth-down attempt in USU territory and then played conservatively in the last minute of the first half with USU trailing 17-0.The offense’s troubles wasted the efforts of USU’s defense in the first half.

But then the defense played down to that level in the second half, so there could be no division in the locker room with plenty of blame to go around for this debacle.

That’s the complete summary of the good news for USU.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com Twitter: @tribkurt

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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