Tennessee stormed out of a lightning delay, scoring three touchdowns in less than five minutes to break open its much anticipated first football meeting with East Tennessee State on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The result was a 59-3 victory for the Vols, Jeremy Pruitt’s first win as Tennessee’s head coach.
Tennessee (1-1) used two big pass plays to set up scores and took advantage of numerous ETSU miscues that included a blocked punt for a touchdown, an interception return for a score and another interception that set up a TD.
“I like the way we competed,” ETSU first-year coach Randy Sanders said. “I liked the way we fought. I don’t like the score.”
With a crowd of 96,4664 on hand, the Vols simply had their way with the Football Championship Subdivision opponent that was being paid $500,000 for showing up.
“We knew this was going to be a huge challenge,” Sanders said. “Tennessee, they got a lot of players who had a lot of choices where they went to school. They’re good football players.”
The Vols outgained ETSU 414-194 in total offense and scored 28 points in the second quarter. It was a 10-0 game 18 minutes in and the Bucs’ defense was playing well. ETSU held the Vols to minus-1 yard rushing in the first quarter.
“You’ve got to give East Tennessee State credit,” Pruitt said. “I watched them this week and defensively they’re multiple and do a good job. They play hard. They’re sound. They squeeze the ball and they disguise very well.”
The game was suspended in the second quarter with Tennessee ahead 10-0 when lightning was detected in the area. There was 12:01 remaining until halftime and an announcement was made to clear the stadium.
When the teams returned to the field 48 minutes later, the Vols brought a little lightning of their own, embarking on an 82-yard, six-play scoring drive, capped by Jeremy Banks’ 1-yard touchdown run.
That left Tennessee up 17-0 and was just the start.
The big play of the drive was a 51-yard pass play from Jarrett Guarantano to Marquez Callaway. The Bucs thought they had the Vols stopped, but a pass interference penalty kept the drive alive.
Two players later, Tennessee’s Bryce Thompson intercepted a tipped Logan Marchi pass and returned it 21 yards to the ETSU 3-yard line. That led to a 3-yard TD run by Banks and the blowout had officially begun.
“We had some things not go our way,” ETSU linebacker Dylan Weigel said. “You know there’s plays in a game that are going to hurt you. You just don’t know which ones they are. That’s how it was tonight.”
The Bucs ran three more plays before Marchi had another pass tipped. This one was picked off by Darrin Kirkland Jr., who returned it 33 yards for a touchdown and a 31-0 lead.
“That gave them a lot of momentum,” Sanders said.
The Bucs were forced to punt inside their own 30-yard line on their first three possessions, none of which resulted in any first downs.
The third time hurt as Tennessee’s Marquill Osborne blocked Marion Watson’s punt and returned it eight yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
“We had a player blow an assignment,” Sanders said. “When you get in the kicking game, punt protection is a little like offense. You have to have all 11 guys doing their job. If one of them doesn’t, it usually hurts you.”
It was tough to take for ETSU’s defense, which had established itself on the Vols’ first two possessions. Despite one defensive miscue resulting in a 51-yard pass play, ETSU’s defense held Tennessee to only Brett Cimaglia’s 26-yard field goal.
With the Vols up 31-0, Keller Chryst came on to replace Guarantano for a possession. He led Tennessee on an efficient scoring drive and Josh Palmer took it in on a 20-yard reverse for a 38-0 advantage.
The Vols got two second-half touchdown runs from Madre London and a 50-yard pass from Chryst to Jordan Murphy for a score.
True freshman running back Jacob Saylors gave the Bucs’ offense a much needed lift in the third quarter. With ETSU down 45-0, Saylors moved the team into scoring position by gaining 23 yards on a run and 18 more on a perfectly called screen pass that beat a Tennessee blitz.
JJ Jerman’s 39-yard field goal put the Bucs on the board with 6:01 left in the third quarter.
Saylors finished with 41 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
ETSU plays next at Virginia Military Institute next Saturday.
UTEP pays a visit to Knoxville next weekend to take on the Vols.