KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Exactly nine years to the day after it pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history, Appalachian State nearly did it again.
A couple of missed kicks and an inability to recover an overtime fumble prevented the Mountaineers from getting it done.
Jalen Hurd pounced on quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ fumble in the end zone and No. 9 Tennessee overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to escape with a 20-13 victory over Appalachian State on Thursday night.
“It’s definitely heartbreaking,” said Appalachian State’s Marcus Cox, who rushed for 115 yards. “I feel like we put ourselves in position to win, and we just didn’t capitalize when we should have.”
Appalachian State was trying to stage a repeat of its 2007 upset of No. 5 Michigan, which marked the first time a Football Championship Subdivision program had beaten a Top 25 team. The Mountaineers have since left the FCS ranks and had their first season as a full-fledged Bowl Subdivision member last year.
Tennessee faced third-and-goal from the 2 when Dobbs ran to his right and lost control of the ball as he tried to stretch his arms across the goal line. Hurd won the scramble for the loose ball in the end zone to give the Volunteers their only lead of the night.
“I thought I was in, and then I just saw Jalen dive on the ball and I said, ‘All right, we’re good. We scored,’ ” Dobbs said. “A touchdown’s a touchdown.”
Micah Abernathy ended the game by breaking up a pass into the end zone on fourth-and-5 from the 20.
The Vols tied it on Dobbs’ 67-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone with 10:30 left in regulation. Appalachian State redshirt freshman kicker Michael Rubino, who earlier missed an extra point, was wide right on a 42-yard field goal attempt with 5:24 remaining.
Rubino’s miss wasted a 57-yard punt return by Jaquil Capel that gave Appalachian State the ball at the 28.
Tennessee entered the season with its highest ranking since 2006 after winning its final six games last year, but the Volunteers looked nothing like a Top 10 team Thursday. The Volunteers committed two first-half turnovers and lost linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin to a targeting penalty in the opening quarter as Appalachian State built a 13-3 lead.
“On a night where just about everything and anything went wrong, we found a way to win,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Cam Sutton fumbled on a punt return and Appalachian State’s Alex Gray recovered at Tennessee’s 36 to set up the first touchdown, a 5-yard keeper from Taylor Lamb barely four minutes into the game. Appalachian State’s other touchdown came in the second quarter on a 33-yard completion from Lamb to Cox.
Appalachian State: The Mountaineers had lost by at least 28 points in each of their six meetings with Power Five teams since that Michigan game, but they showed Thursday that they could compete with college football’s big-name programs. Appalachian State refused to get pushed around and kept Tennessee’s offense out of the end zone for the first 49 1/2 minutes.
Cox showed he can run effectively against any team from any conference. Cox now has 4,203 career yards rushing to rank second among all active FBS players, behind San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey.
Tennessee: The Vols vowed they weren’t overlooking Appalachian State and weren’t distracted by sky-high preseason expectations, but something was clearly missing Thursday.
The biggest question surrounding Tennessee during the offseason was whether it could add efficiency and explosiveness to its passing attack. That area remains a major concern. Dobbs went 16 of 29 for 192 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
“I’m never going to apologize for a win, guys,” Jones said. “I think we’ve learned around here wins are pretty hard to come by.”
Appalachian State reached Tennessee territory on four second-half possessions but failed to score on any of them. … Appalachian State controlled the ball for 33 ½ minutes to keep Tennessee’s offense off the field. … Tennessee rushed for just 127 yards on 43 carries. … Dobbs, who ran for a combined 1,160 yards in 2014-15, had minus-4 yards rushing on nine carries.
Appalachian State: The Mountaineers have their home opener Sept. 10 against Old Dominion. Appalachian State must avoid looking ahead to its Sept. 17 home game with Miami.
Tennessee: The Volunteers face Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The Sept. 10 “Battle at Bristol” is expected to draw over 150,000 fans, which would mark the largest recorded attendance for a college football game.