Tennessee thumped Tennessee Tech today 56-0 moving to 2-1 for the season.
QB Joe Milton was declared out just before game time, and backup Hendon Hooker propelled the offense to touchdowns on five offensive drives. He 17 of his 29 passes for completed 199 yards and three scores, and he also led the team in rushing yards (64), added one rushing touchdown and fell literally an arm length’s away from a second one, shown below.
But, Hooker also lost a fumble for the second-straight game. This time, it was on a scramble, and it was after he’d already picked up necessary yardage for a first down. Instead of sliding, he tried to spin and got popped. Gotta get down or lay down, young fella.
“Some real positives,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said of his QB’s play during the postgame press conference. Decisive. Accurate at times. Did a good job using his feet at times. The turnovers can’t happen. There are plays in the pass game from the pocket, wide receivers behind (the defense) back there again. We’re not connecting on those. Got to at some point make those plays.”
Hooker’s accuracy wasn’t awful, I mean, he hit 68 percent of his passes, but as has been the theme for the Vols recently, Hooker left some points on the board by missing on the deep ball.
Against Tennessee Tech, the Vols weren’t really any worse for the wear with the errant tosses. But any wiggle room, any margin for error that was there today, will most definitely not be there next week in Gainesville.
“There were a bunch of plays out there offensively that at some point we’re going to have to take advantage of,” Heupel said. “Obviously the level of competition is going to step up next week. Our players are excited about that opportunity. Big challenge for us as a program. But we’ve got to make some strides in the next week.”
While Hooker’s downfield misses are problematic, he did connect on one of those attempts — a 29-yard, well-placed strike to JaVonta Payton. Notice the time: Tennessee put a touchdown on the board in just about a minute of game time.
This sorta frenetic pace is a hallmark of Heupel’s offense, and it’s been a welcome change for Vol fans after watching Jeremy Pruitt’s squads lack any real sort of purpose, direction or offensive identity through the last three seasons. Tennessee ran 88 plays against Bowling Green in the season opener, the most a Vols’ team has run since 2015, 79 today against Tennessee Tech and 66 against a more stout Pittsburgh team.
“Our pace is nowhere near where it’s capable of being,” Heupel said. “It’s the guy that’s got the ball in his hands, being more efficient with it. It’s the offensive line. It’s the quarterback, too. It’s just part of us playing a lot cleaner. That’s not the only thing. There are a lot of things…”
One such “thing,”: Tennessee’s scattered rushing attack. After gutting Bowling Green for a total 326 yards and four TDs on 64 carries, the Vols managed just 136 rushing yards against Pitt and 202 against Tennessee Tech. The numbers from the last two games might not seem that bleak, but they don’t hold up against closer inspection. 175 of those 338 total yards came from quarterbacks, and how many of those yards came on designed runs versus how many of those yards came on scrambles?
A quarterback has led Tennessee in rushing yards in both of these last two games, and, going further (but obviously not much further), none of the RBs have eclipsed 50 yards in either contest. I’m not saying that’s bad, or especially ineffective, but at the very least, that sorta run game is unreliable. A defense with good discipline on containment, and/ or/ in addition to an athletic spy on the quarterback could put the clamps on our impromptu scramble gains. Then what?
Heupel said the problem comes down to both the line and the backs being inconsistent.
“It’s a combination of everything at times,” Heupel said. “We can be cleaner in the run game up front. And when I say that, I’m talking about the tight ends as well. At times they’re blocking it really clean. We’re not maximizing it at the running back position either. I thought there were a couple plays today out on the perimeter and inside the core where we need to do a better job of pace and being able to come out of it, use blockers in front of us. It’s everybody together. We’ve got to get better.”
Tennessee’s been working with a patchwork offensive line as it deals with injuries to Cooper Mays, who didn’t play tonight, Cade Mays, who left tonight’s game with an apparent leg injury and Kingston Harris, who also went down tonight with a non-contact injury that looked an awful lot like a torn ACL. We’re not far from seeing walk-ons in the two-deep. A matchup with the Gator defense that’s 17th in the country allowing just 2.6 yards per-rush was foreboding with a line at full strength. Let’s hope the guys can heal up this week.
On the bright side, Tennessee’s defense pitched an avaricious shut out, snagging four and cashing in one of intercept them for a touchdown on a Solon page pick-six. Byron Young made his presence felt in his first game back after a two-game absence due to an eligibility snafu by tying Aubrey Solomon for a team-leading six tackles. In total, the defense had eight tackles for loss and sacked the Tennessee Tech QB four times.
“I think it (getting four turnovers) was big for us as a program, Heupel said. “You guys have asked that question (about not being able to force turnovers) a bunch. How are you going to force those things to happen? It happens when you apply pressure on the quarterback. It happens when you get your hands on balls. When you have opportunities, guys make plays. Today you saw some of those things. We’ve got to continue to rip at it and force fumbles too. To me, the one thing we stress is playing harder than your opponent. If you do that, eventually good things are going to happen. We had some good things happen today. We’re going to have to continue to do as we go through it.”
Just a few other notes:
- Heupel didn’t give much away regarding Milton’s health for next week, but Hooker played well enough that I think you almost have to start him against UF. Fans finally got a glimpse of Harrison Bailey. He went 3-7 for 16 yards, and while I don’t think he looked bad, I do think this clears up any enthusiastic but ultimately misguided notions that he should be playing over Hooker or Milton. Obviously, though, this is a hot-button issue for Vol fans, so don’t let me rain on y’all’s parade if you’re #TeamBailey.
The young QB did, however, show off his dancing legs on this little skip/scamper/ gallop for a late touchdown.
- Velus Jones finally shined today — this slant he housed for his first TD of the year showed off that game-breaking type speed of his, and then the dead-leg, hesi-move he gave that final defender near the goal line was just delightful . Heupel needs to keep finding ways to get the ball in his hands.
- I enjoyed this Tiyon Evans over-the-top touchdown. I couldn’t think of which back specifically this play reminded me of, but the RTT Twitter homies rattled off several names, with most of the mentions being James Stewart and Travis Henry.
- Freshman WR Walker Merrill had four catches on four targets — I’m excited about his potential in the slot, and we saw Len’Neth Whitehead at RB after Marcus Pierce spelled Wright/Evans, so jumbo athlete Dee Beckwith still hasn’t played and might be looking at a redshirt season.
Tennessee travels to The Swamp next week to face a Florida team that lost to Alabama by just two points on Saturday. The Gators have won 15 of the last 16 games against Tennessee, with 11 of those contests being by at least 10 points.