Tennessee's Daniel Hood (97) intercepts a pass during the first quarter against Austin Peay on Saturday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones couldn’t have scripted a much better way to start his Tennessee coaching career.
Tennessee scored touchdowns on each of its six first-half possessions Saturday and breezed to a 45-0 victory against overmatched Austin Peay. Rajion Neal rushed for 141 yards and Justin Worley threw three touchdown passes in the first half before joining most of the starters on the sidelines for the final two periods.
The victory was the 800th in school history for Tennessee, which became just the eighth program to reach that plateau. The others are Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama. That was the first item Jones mentioned at his postgame press conference.
“It’s a tribute to all the great players who’ve come before us who have laid this tradition, this passion,” Jones said.
Jones was hired away from Cincinnati in December to turn around a storied program that has produced three straight losing seasons for the first time in over a century. Jones replaced Derek Dooley, who was fired after going 15-21 in three years.
He already is making an impact in the stands. Jones’ debut had an announced attendance of 97,169. Tennessee drew 87,821 fans for its home opener against Georgia State last year and had an average attendance of 89,965, its lowest since 1979. Tens of thousands greeted the team for its pregame “Vol Walk” into the stadium.
“For me, the greatest sense of peace of mind I have is how proud (the players) were showing me the Vol Walk, how proud they were running through the ‘T,’ ” Jones said. “You could see that pride of who we are coming out. That’s what we have here and that’s what we’re building this program on.”
Tennessee’s one-sided victory gave those fans plenty of reason for optimism, though it did come against a Football Championship Subdivision program that has lost 17 consecutive road games. Austin Peay hasn’t won away from home since beating Tennessee State 26-23 on Sept. 18, 2010.
Jones’ team will face much tougher tests soon enough. Five of Tennessee’s first eight games are against teams ranked 10th or higher in the Top 25: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida. Next week the Vols face Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky.
“Coach doesn’t let anyone get too happy about (the shutout),” nose tackle Daniel Hood said. “He’s already talking to us about Western Kentucky.”
Tennessee rushed for 315 yards on 52 attempts while capitalizing on a huge size advantage. Tennessee returns four starters from a veteran offensive line that allowed only eight sacks last season. Neal needed just 16 carries to gain his 141 yards, and Worley completed 11 of his 13 passes.
“It’s the SEC,” Austin Peay linebacker Josh Owens said. “They’re supposed to be like that. Other than that, I feel like it was a great challenge for us. I feel like we did the best we could.”
Neal started the scoring with his 47-yard burst on Tennessee’s opening series. The senior running back shook loose of defensive end Trey Salisbury in the backfield, raced toward the left sideline and stayed upright when free safety Johnathan Shuler pushed him in the back inside the 10-yard line.
On Austin Peay’s ensuing possession, Hood deflected and caught an Andrew Spivey pass for his first career interception, giving Tennessee the ball at Austin Peay’s 25-yard line. Hood’s interception — he said it was his first since middle school — set up a 14-yard touchdown run up the middle by Marlin Lane, who added a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Austin Peay never recovered.
Tennessee outgained Austin Peay 188-15 in the first quarter and already led 21-0 by the time the Governors got a first down. Tennessee didn’t punt until midway through the third quarter and didn’t commit a penalty all night.
Devrin Young capped Tennessee’s third drive of the game by scoring his first career touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Worley, who was falling backward as he released the ball. Worley threw touchdown passes of 11 yards to Alton “Pig” Howard and 3 yards to tight end Brendan Downs in the second quarter.
“That’s as smooth as it could have gone,” Neal said. “That’s what we really needed.”