Too many times in recent years, the Tennessee Volunteers struggled to run away from teams they should handle. Too many times in his career, senior running back Rajion Neal struggled to run away from defenders.
But when Neal shed an Austin Peay defender's tackle on the Vols' fourth play from scrimmage Saturday and raced 47 yards for a touchdown, he and his teammates left those dark days in the rearview. The Vols did everything they wanted against the FCS' Governors on their way to a 45-0 win.
Tennessee dominated as long as its starters played. From Justin Worley's dissection of APSU's defense and a road-grading running game to a defensive effort that showed no signs of former coordinator Sal Sunseri's handprints, Tennessee's thumping was thorough. The Vols also were not penalized.
By the second play of the second quarter, Tennessee had built a commanding four-touchdown cushion. The Vols led 42-0 at halftime.
Worley particularly should enjoy a confidence boost. The junior finished 11-of-13 for 104 yards and three touchdowns in one half. He passed his first test by controlling his nerves then controlling the offense, leading UT to six touchdowns in his six drives.
He told the Vol Network after the game:
I liked the way we executed today; how we came out and played with great effort. We were just executing our game plan, played penalty-free, and I think we converted 100 percent of our third downs.
Though his only deep throw was dropped by freshman Marquez North, it was well-placed and should have been caught. Worley didn't have much practice under duress, but he managed his way through Jones' game plan meticulously.
Worley was unmolested behind UT's vaunted offensive line, which pushed around an Austin Peay defensive front that featured just one starter over 255 pounds.
Last year, UT finished eighth in the SEC with 160.3 rushing yards per game. After losing more than 80 percent of their receiving yards from last season, however, the Vols must rely more on their rushing attack to win games, and Saturday was the start they wanted.
Neal's 141 yards on 16 carries was the sixth-best first-half performance in school history, and he had gaping holes to run through much of the night. Tennessee finished with 315 rushing yards on a 6.1 average, and 213 of those yards came with the starters in the game.
The UT defense did allow a pair of deep-penetration drives but preserved the shutout. Though the Vols got some help from a Governors missed field goal, they also made a big second-half play with Austin Peay threatening when freshman Malik Foreman jumped a route and got his first career interception.
After a 2012 season that included the Vols sleepwalking through a 47-26 win over Akron and sweating their way to a 55-48 shootout win over Troy, any blowout is welcome if not unexpected.
Tennessee tapered off greatly with Nathan Peterman in at quarterback in the second half, and there will still be plenty of bad football on film to dissect. But, simply put, it would be impossible to script a better start to the Butch Jones era.
As he trotted in to talk to his football team at halftime, Jones told the Vol Network that the second half was going to be about working on "the continuing evolution of our football team."
Step one was a success.