The Volunteers’ fan base might have disagreed.
Tennessee seemed well on its way to a blowout victory Saturday before squandering most of a 24-point lead and hanging on for dear life in a 31-24 victory over South Alabama.
South Alabama had first-and-goal at the 7 in the closing minutes before Tennessee wrapped up the game with one last stand. Brian Randolph made a game-clinching interception in the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 8 with 1:51 remaining.
“We needed a game like this,” Jones said. “We needed to find out (about ourselves) as we move forward into the SEC schedule. We’ve had some adversity. We were in a tight game. You really find out which guys step up in those types of circumstances.”
Rajion Neal rushed for a career-high 169 yards on 25 carries as Tennessee avoided a third straight loss as it heads into a brutal three-game stretch. The Vols (3-2) host No. 9 Georgia and No. 12 South Carolina and visit No. 1 Alabama in their next three games.
South Alabama, in its first year as a full-fledged Football Bowl Subdivision program, was within reach of its first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent. The Jaguars had lost 30-10 to Mississippi State last year.
“We came in at halftime and I challenged them to come out and fight,” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. “And they did that. We were eight yards from making unbelievable history, but we didn’t do it.”
After trailing 31-7 early in the third quarter, South Alabama scored 17 straight points. A 7-yard completion from Metheny to Shavarez Smith gave them first-and-goal with a shot to tie the game.
On first down, Justin Coleman stopped Metheny for one yard on a quarterback keeper. Corey Miller sacked Metheny for an 8-yard loss on second down. A 6-yard completion from Metheny to Jay Jones gave the Jaguars fourth-and-goal from the 8.
Metheny was hit by Corey Vereen as he released the fourth-down pass that Randolph picked off in the end zone.
“We had the momentum and we just felt (it) swing,” Randolph said. “But we showed resiliency, and we stopped them from coming back.”
Metheny was 21 of 42 for 234 yards with two interceptions. He also rushed for 67 yards and two touchdowns.
The Vols overcame a three-interception performance from Justin Worley, who was 20 of 36 for 204 yards. Worley threw touchdown passes to freshmen A.J. Branisel and Josh Smith, but he also tossed two interceptions into the end zone late in the first half to prevent Tennessee from extending its lead.
Tennessee still led 31-7 early in the third quarter, but the Vols struggled to move the ball the rest of the game while South Alabama gradually chipped away at the lead.
“We made some adjustments on what side we were pressuring on,” South Alabama defensive end Alex Page said. “We started to mix it up as far as our pressure. After we made that adjustment we were able to shut them down.”
South Alabama also capitalized on Tennessee’s mistakes.
After a false start penalty on Tennessee’s Alex Bullard nullified a successful fake field-goal attempt with the Vols leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter, Michael Palardy’s ensuing 52-yard kick was about 30 yards short. South Alabama’s Roman Buchanan caught the botched attempt and returned it to the Tennessee 29.
Cris Dinham capped South Alabama’s ensuing possession with a 3-yard touchdown run that cut Tennessee’s lead to 31-24 with 8:55 remaining.
Tennessee had built its 31-7 lead on the strength of its rushing attack.
Neal had a 53-yard run and Marlin Lane added a 54-yard burst to set up touchdowns as Tennessee reached the end zone on three straight first-half possessions. Lane’s run was the Vols’ longest play from scrimmage this season. Lane rushed for 66 yards on only five carries before leaving late in the second quarter with a lower extremity injury.
Tennessee hadn’t had two different players produce runs of at least 50 yards in the same game since Travis Stephens had an 80-yarder and Travis Henry a 53-yarder in a 59-20 rout of Kentucky on Nov. 18, 2000.
This is the second straight year Tennessee has struggled to beat a Sun Belt Conference team at home. The Vols came from behind in the fourth quarter last season to beat Troy 55-48.
“It was a little nerve rattling knowing that we might have to go down in a two-minute situation and score,” Worley said. “But our defense had our back.”