BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech and Tennessee will play on Saturday night before the largest crowd ever to watch a college football game in person.
Both teams are working to look a lot sharper than they did in their season openers.
Tennessee (1-0), ranked No. 9, needed a missed extra point and a missed 42-yard field goal in regulation by Appalachian State to reach overtime before prevailing 20-13. Virginia Tech (1-0) had three first-half turnovers and trailed Liberty 13-10 in the second quarter before getting untracked offensively in a 36-13 victory.
First-year Hokies coach Justin Fuente hopes his team learns a lot this week, but said it might be hard to recognize those gains on the field.
“You could improve a lot and maybe not be able to tell when you take a step up like we’re going to take a step,” he said Monday. “That’s just the facts of it. … I have a tremendous amount of respect for Liberty and what they’ve done and their program, but the team we’re going to play on Saturday is much more talented.”
The Vols hope they can live up to expectations after struggling on offense against the Mountaineers despite having nine of 11 starters back. They trailed 13-3 and only tied the game on a 67-yard scoring pass with 10:30 left in regulation. It was their only touchdown before the overtime.
“You look around the country and see all the upsets and kind of the way games went throughout the country, it’s good to know we got a win,” said Vols linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who was ejected after a targeting call in the first quarter. “We know we didn’t play our best, we didn’t play up to our standard, but like (defensive coordinator) coach (Bob) Shoop says, you’ve got to play both good and clutch. They work hand in hand. We came up clutch in the end and found a way to win the game.”
Now, Tennessee and Virginia Tech are focused on the long anticipated matchup that is being billed as the “Battle at Bristol,” a game first discussed in 1997 and that is expected o draw a crowd of 155,000 or more to Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Hokies, who fumbled the ball away four times against the Flames, know turnovers are one area they definitely need to tighten up.
“We can’t make some of the same mistakes we did this past weekend against Tennessee,” running back Sam Rogers said. “They’re going to take advantage of it, so prepare the same way but know the stakes are a little higher.”
Two of the fumbles were by quarterback Jerod Evans, a transfer from Trinity Valley Community College. He also threw four touchdown passes, but Fuente values ball security and said a repeat performance would likely not lead to a positive result.
“Evaluating Jerod’s game, he knows that he missed a few things in there,” Fuente said. “Obviously, we have to take care of the football. That first day is not pleasing, but some good and some bad probably about, like, every position on the offensive side. We did a few good things, but by and large, just not consistent enough.”
For the eyebrow-raising Tennessee’s struggles caused, there were some positives the Vols could take away from their opener. They erased a 13-3 halftime deficit, signaling a reversal of last season when they finished 9-4 and led in each of their losses, three times by at least 13 points.
“We’re still building our identity, but I thought there were a lot of things to really build upon from Thursday night when you watch the video,” coach Butch Jones said. “At the end of the game we found a way to win a football game. To me, that talks about perseverance, resiliency and finding a way to win football games.
“But I think we all know we have to continue to move forward and make great, great significant progress from Week One to Week Two.”
AP sports writer Steve Megargee contributed from Knoxville, Tennessee
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