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Worley, defense spark Vols past Utah State 38-7
Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett (9) sacks Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton (16) during their NCAA college football game at Neyland Stadium, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. . (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Justin Worley threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns to help Tennessee beat Utah State 38-7 on Sunday night in a game matching two quarterbacks returning from injuries that ended their 2013 seasons prematurely.
Worley completed his first 13 passes of the second half in his first appearance since missing Tennessee's final four games last season with an injured right thumb. He was 27 of 38 overall, connecting with 10 different receivers.
Worley threw touchdown passes to Brendan Downs, Von Pearson and Jalen Hurd, and his 27 completions were a career high.
Worley outperformed Utah State star Chuckie Keeton, who was playing for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee last October. Keeton went 18 of 35 for 144 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
Tennessee is relying heavily on a heralded recruiting class as it attempts to end a string of four straight losing seasons, and those newcomers wasted no time making an impact. By the midway point of the first quarter, Tennessee already had played 16 true freshmen, the most ever used by the Vols in a season opener.
Two of Worley's three TD passes went to newcomers; Hurd is a freshman and Pearson a junior-college transfer. Todd Kelly Jr., another freshman, had a fumble recovery that set up a touchdown.
Tennessee opened the scoring by getting two touchdowns in a span of 14 seconds six minutes into the game.
Alton "Pig" Howard got things started with an 8-yard run around the right end for the junior's first career rushing touchdown. When Utah State's Kennedy Williams took the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone, A.J. Johnson knocked the ball away and Kelly recovered. On the next play, Worley found tight end Brendan Downs for a 12-yard touchdown.
The turnover on the kickoff return marked just the second career forced fumble for Johnson, a senior all-Southeastern Conference linebacker. He added his first career interception in the fourth quarter, setting up Marlin Lane's 7-yard touchdown run.
Tennessee extended the advantage to 17-0 by halftime and probably should have led by more. After going ahead 14-0, Tennessee reached Utah State territory on five straight possessions but only had three more points to show for it. Those three points came on an Aaron Medley 36-yard field goal that was set up by Cam Sutton's interception.
Utah State didn't reach Tennessee territory until the opening series of the second half, a drive that ended with Jake Thompson's 48-yard field-goal attempt going wide left. Tennessee then put the game away by reaching the end zone on each of its first two second-half possessions, with both touchdowns coming from newcomers.
Pearson caught a short pass, made a nifty move around a defender and scored from 18 yards out late in the third. Hurd's 15-yard reception on the first play of the fourth quarter made it 31-0.
Utah State broke up the shutout bid on Keeton's 37-yard touchdown pass from Keeton to Hunter Sharp with 14:16 remaining.
Tennessee scored 17 points off three takeaways and didn't turn the ball over all night, ending a string of 23 straight games in which Utah State had forced at least one turnover.
The hype surrounding Tennessee's newcomers - as well as a special Sunday night kickoff - attracted a capacity crowd of 102,455 to Neyland Stadium. That represented Tennessee's first sellout of a home opener since a 39-19 victory over Southern Mississippi in 2007.