It may have not have looked like it, but there were some nervous Tennessee football players before the Vols took the field and whipped LSU 40-13 on Saturday. Fortunately, UT’s kicking game soothed any concerns.
“Coming into the game, you’ve got a little bit of butterflies, but when things like that happen, it gives you confidence when you get rolling early, especially at an away game,” Tennessee tailback Jabari Small said. “Special teams did their job the whole game. That makes it easier for the offense as well as the defense.”
They certainly did. The Vols recovered a loose ball that was mishandled by LSU on the opening kickoff. That set up a quick score. Then, the Vols benefited from a 58-yard punt return by Dee Williams that gave the Vols another short field to work with.
No one predicted that special teams would be such a major part of the game so early. However, it was a welcome event for more than one reason. First, it obviously set the Vols’ offense up in prime position to score. Second, it put any concerned minds at ease that were fretting about playing in Tiger Stadium. Overall team confidence? Yeah, the Vols have that.
“I was just talking to some of my teammates about that,” Small said. “It’s a great feeling because you don’t know how you’re going to win. Good teams just always win. It doesn’t matter how it happens, just having that confidence, just knowing that somebody is going to make the play. You’ve got to do your job.
“Everybody on the field is doing their job…but we’ve got to stay grounded, play each play, don’t look at the scoreboard and do what we do.”
There was one player that might have been understandably nervous about the game – or at least eager. Jeremiah Crawford started his first game in his career on Saturday as Gerald Mincey was sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Crawford could have been a starter before the LSU game had he not been beaten out by Mincey in training camp.
Crawford handled the majority of the snaps at left tackle with some occasional appearances by Dayne Davis. Nervous? Nah.
“It was fun for those guys,” Small said. “They were opening up holes and protecting Hendon so I’m proud of those guys…They were playing confident. They were playing free.”
Crawford and Davis did well. Protecting quarterback Hendon Hooker’s blindside, the Vols sealed off the left side of the line. Vaunted pass rushers B.J. Ojulari and Ali Gaye had only 11 tackles combined and no sacks.
The two were basically non factors in the game. Perhaps Tennessee’s, ahem, LSU’s homefield advantage wasn’t inspiring enough. It was an unusual scene toward the end of the game as LSU fans poured out of Tiger Stadium and Tennessee fans took over.
“The Florida game last week, that was something I’ve never been a part of, but this right here, is just as sweet,” Small said. “I just try to take each week in and experience each week. It’s fun.”
For the long-suffering UT fans in attendance, that’s an understatement.