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HomeSportsTennessee FootballTennessee vs. Virginia: 10 points

Tennessee vs. Virginia: 10 points

1.) What were y’all worried about?!? Nobody overreacts like a college football fan on Twitter (yours truly included). And Tennessee fans didn’t disappoint in the first half of the Vols’ season-opener against Virginia. Bless the poor social media staffer who was manning the UT Football Twitter account during the game. The responses were alive with wailing and gnashing of teeth and F-bombs being dropped.

To be fair, though, it was a rough start for Tennessee. The opening drive was a sterling effort — an 8-play, 55-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Joe Milton to Dylan Sampson — the first of four touchdowns that Sampson would score on the day in what was undeniably his coming out party.

But when Ramel Keyton dropped a stunning deep ball from Bazooka Joe, it seemed to tie Tennessee’s defense into knots. And it took most of the first half for the offense to get untied. Suddenly, Milton looked shaky — as Milton is prone to do — and misfired on several straight passes. There were two badly shanked punts from rookie Aussie Jackson Ross (you know you were thinking it, Tennessee fans: “Why’d you run off the kid from Oneida?”) and a fumbled punt return by the Vols.

This isn’t a great UVA team. It isn’t even a good UVA team. So it was concerning that Tennessee — which was a 28-point favorite — led only 7-0 getting late into the second quarter. To be sure, Saturday’s game was never in doubt, but a better effort will be needed against SEC defenses like the ones Tennessee will face in Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M, among others.

Still, once the Vols settled down, things began humming right along like everyone would expect from a Josh Heupel offense. There are some things to clean up, but it was a pretty good day overall. Let’s break it down…

2.) Never worried about the defense. The offense may have started a little shaky for Tennessee, but one thing that wasn’tshaky was the defense. The Vols’ defense was much maligned at times last season — never more than when South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler was having a Heisman-like performance to derail the Vols’ playoff hopes last November. As a result, Heupel and his staff spent a good deal of the offseason working to shore up the defensive side of the football — on the recruiting trail, in the transfer portal, and in team meetings and workouts. If Saturday’s game against Virginia was any indication, Tennessee’s defense will be much, much improved in 2023.

The Vols limited Virginia to just 201 yards of offense, and manhandled the Cavs’ offensive line. UT’s defensive front lived in the Virginia backfield all afternoon, recording 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks. It was a better effort than we saw from Tennessee’s defense in any single game in 2022. The defensive front and linebackers in particular looked really, really good. Tyler Baron had the sort of game Tennessee will hope to have from him all season, but James Pearce also recorded a couple of sacks, which was a promising sign.

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To be sure, Tennessee will face better offenses — and better offensive lines — this season. But it was a great start. We’ll see how much better this defense really is when the Vols travel down to Gainesville in a couple of weeks.

3.) That stable of runningbacks. When was the last time Tennessee was as deep at runningback as it is right now? The 2016 team featured both Alvin Kamara and Jalin Hurd (until Hurd left the program mid-season, that is) and that’s a tandem that’s awfully hard to top in terms of raw talent. But this Tennessee team has three quality options, and I’m not sure the 2016 team had that — although John Kelly and Carlin Fils-aime weren’t too bad.

All the talk today is about Dylan Sampson, who scored four touchdowns. Perhaps that’s legit, but the one who really impressed was Jaylen Wright. He finished with 115 yards and averaged 9.6 yards per carry. Throw in Jabari Small — who finished with 67 yards on 13 carries — and that’s a trio of runningbacks that could be among the best in the SEC, all things considered.

As a team, Tennessee averaged 5.5 yards per carry. It’s easy to say, “But Virginia…” The truth, though, is that for however much UVA is going to struggle this year, the Cavs have a pretty solid defensive front. And Tennessee carved them up at times.

4.) Bazooka Joe… It’s going to be a maddening year with Joe Milton at QB. We saw Bazooka Joe in a nutshell today. When he’s good, he’s really, really good. But when he’s bad, he’s cringe-inducing. It may be fair to say that Milton will both win plenty of games and perhaps also lose a game or two all by himself.

With that said, Milton had a pretty outstanding game against Virginia, with the exception of that brief spurt late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter when he had several bad throws in a row. Once he settled down, he was on target. And his bad passes weren’t poor decisions; just inaccurate throws.

Milton finished 21 of 30 for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His most impressive throw was the one that Keyton dropped. He launched it nearly 50 yards with just a flick of the wrist. It looked effortless.

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When it comes to physical gifts, Joe Milton is the best quarterback in college football. It isn’t even close. If he played cool under pressure like former Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, he would be a Heisman winner. As it is, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, and UT will be glad to have him as we go through this brutal conference schedule.

5.) If Milton gets hurt… We only saw vaunted freshman Nico Iamaleava for a couple of drives, so it’s hard to read too much into how game-ready he is as a true freshman. But he certainly passes the smell test. He had one carry for 8 yards and completed 2 of 3 passes. Like Milton, though, Iamaleava’s best pass was the one that he didn’t complete. He escaped pressure and threw a bullet to the end zone, which was just a little too high for his intended receiver. It’s going to be exciting to watch this kid perform next year when the Heupel system is his to run.

6.) A dreadful start on special teams… It was not a good first half on special teams. Two shanked punts gave Virginia outstanding field position on Tennessee’s side of the 50-yard-line. A fumbled punt return did the same. (Those three miscues made Tennessee’s defensive performance in the first half even more impressive. Throw in the turnover on downs at the 29-yard-line and UVA had four possessions in plus territory in the first half, which netted exactly zero points.)

Once Jackson Ross, the freshman Rugby-style punter, settled down, he looked better. I’m not a fan of Rugby-style punting myself. But Ross did have a 50-yard punt, which was nice to see (though he was undeniably upstaged by Daniel Sparks, who boomed a 62-yarder inside the 5-yard-line).

It’s interesting that Kolby Morgan, the Oneida native who left the program after two seasons, had a pretty impressive debut against Tennessee Tech a couple of seasons ago, and also out-performed Ross in the spring Orange & White Game (though, to be fair, Tennessee was strictly pro-style punting in that game, which Ross isn’t used to).

We’ll see if Ross can gain some better consistency as the season progresses.

7.) An electric punt returner. Dee Williams certainly made up for his fumble in the first quarter with his next two punt returns. For that matter, the fumbled return was a good one up until the point that he put the ball on the ground. For the day, Williams returned three punts for 105 yards, and also had the opening kickoff return to midfield. This cat is going to be fun to watch as the season progresses. Odds are he houses one eventually.

8.) “Look at the little Squirrel go…” The ESPN broadcast crew was impressed with wide receiver Squirrel White, and rightfully so. White isn’t the most talented receiver Tennessee has coming back from last year. That goes to Bru McCoy. Keyton may rank ahead of him, too, though the dropped deep ball still stings a little. But White was Milton’s favorite target against Virginia, and showed that he’s going to be one of the better receivers in the SEC this season. He was targeted  seven times and finished with six receptions for 45 yards. McCoy and Keyton were each targeted five times. Squirrel also had the most YAC (yards after catch), with 29.

It wasn’t a terrific day for the wide receivers, given the ability of Virginia’s secondary, but it wasn’t a bad day, either.

9.) What rules change? Some wondered if college football’s rules change — the clock no longer stops on first down, except inside the final two minutes of each half, which makes the college game a little more like the NFL — would hinder Josh Heupel’s hurry-up offense. In its money-hungry wisdom, the NCAA hierarchy adopted the rules change to try to shorten game times that often stretch beyond 3.5 hours but didn’t do anything to address the maddeningly frequent commercial breaks that do far more to extend games than the clock stoppages on first down.

Anyhow, Tennessee ran 85 plays against Virginia.

No, the rules change isn’t going to matter a whole lot.

10.) A record crowd. It has long perplexed midstate football fans that a lot of East Tennesseans have never embraced the Tennessee Titans. The reason is simple, really. It goes back to when the franchise moved to Nashville. No effort was really made at the time by the Oilers to endear themselves to East Tennesseans, and many University of Tennessee fans saw the NFL franchise as Nashville’s best effort to compete with the UT football brand (since, let’s face it, Vanderbilt is certainly never gonna).

So expect to hear a lot of crowing from UT fans after a record crowd of 69,507 fans packed Nissan Stadium for Saturday’s game.

In other words, Tennessee put more fans in the Titans’ stadium than the Titans ever have.

Yeah, that’ll be a talking point.

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1.) What were y’all worried about?!? Nobody overreacts like a college football fan on Twitter (yours truly included). And Tennessee fans didn’t disappoint in the first half of the Vols’ season-opener against Virginia. Bless the poor social media staffer who was manning the UT Football Twitter account during the game. The responses were alive with wailing and gnashing of teeth and F-bombs being dropped.

To be fair, though, it was a rough start for Tennessee. The opening drive was a sterling effort — an 8-play, 55-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Joe Milton to Dylan Sampson — the first of four touchdowns that Sampson would score on the day in what was undeniably his coming out party.

But when Ramel Keyton dropped a stunning deep ball from Bazooka Joe, it seemed to tie Tennessee’s defense into knots. And it took most of the first half for the offense to get untied. Suddenly, Milton looked shaky — as Milton is prone to do — and misfired on several straight passes. There were two badly shanked punts from rookie Aussie Jackson Ross (you know you were thinking it, Tennessee fans: “Why’d you run off the kid from Oneida?”) and a fumbled punt return by the Vols.

This isn’t a great UVA team. It isn’t even a good UVA team. So it was concerning that Tennessee — which was a 28-point favorite — led only 7-0 getting late into the second quarter. To be sure, Saturday’s game was never in doubt, but a better effort will be needed against SEC defenses like the ones Tennessee will face in Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M, among others.

Still, once the Vols settled down, things began humming right along like everyone would expect from a Josh Heupel offense. There are some things to clean up, but it was a pretty good day overall. Let’s break it down…

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2.) Never worried about the defense. The offense may have started a little shaky for Tennessee, but one thing that wasn’tshaky was the defense. The Vols’ defense was much maligned at times last season — never more than when South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler was having a Heisman-like performance to derail the Vols’ playoff hopes last November. As a result, Heupel and his staff spent a good deal of the offseason working to shore up the defensive side of the football — on the recruiting trail, in the transfer portal, and in team meetings and workouts. If Saturday’s game against Virginia was any indication, Tennessee’s defense will be much, much improved in 2023.

The Vols limited Virginia to just 201 yards of offense, and manhandled the Cavs’ offensive line. UT’s defensive front lived in the Virginia backfield all afternoon, recording 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks. It was a better effort than we saw from Tennessee’s defense in any single game in 2022. The defensive front and linebackers in particular looked really, really good. Tyler Baron had the sort of game Tennessee will hope to have from him all season, but James Pearce also recorded a couple of sacks, which was a promising sign.

To be sure, Tennessee will face better offenses — and better offensive lines — this season. But it was a great start. We’ll see how much better this defense really is when the Vols travel down to Gainesville in a couple of weeks.

3.) That stable of runningbacks. When was the last time Tennessee was as deep at runningback as it is right now? The 2016 team featured both Alvin Kamara and Jalin Hurd (until Hurd left the program mid-season, that is) and that’s a tandem that’s awfully hard to top in terms of raw talent. But this Tennessee team has three quality options, and I’m not sure the 2016 team had that — although John Kelly and Carlin Fils-aime weren’t too bad.

All the talk today is about Dylan Sampson, who scored four touchdowns. Perhaps that’s legit, but the one who really impressed was Jaylen Wright. He finished with 115 yards and averaged 9.6 yards per carry. Throw in Jabari Small — who finished with 67 yards on 13 carries — and that’s a trio of runningbacks that could be among the best in the SEC, all things considered.

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As a team, Tennessee averaged 5.5 yards per carry. It’s easy to say, “But Virginia…” The truth, though, is that for however much UVA is going to struggle this year, the Cavs have a pretty solid defensive front. And Tennessee carved them up at times.

4.) Bazooka Joe… It’s going to be a maddening year with Joe Milton at QB. We saw Bazooka Joe in a nutshell today. When he’s good, he’s really, really good. But when he’s bad, he’s cringe-inducing. It may be fair to say that Milton will both win plenty of games and perhaps also lose a game or two all by himself.

With that said, Milton had a pretty outstanding game against Virginia, with the exception of that brief spurt late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter when he had several bad throws in a row. Once he settled down, he was on target. And his bad passes weren’t poor decisions; just inaccurate throws.

Milton finished 21 of 30 for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His most impressive throw was the one that Keyton dropped. He launched it nearly 50 yards with just a flick of the wrist. It looked effortless.

When it comes to physical gifts, Joe Milton is the best quarterback in college football. It isn’t even close. If he played cool under pressure like former Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, he would be a Heisman winner. As it is, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, and UT will be glad to have him as we go through this brutal conference schedule.

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5.) If Milton gets hurt… We only saw vaunted freshman Nico Iamaleava for a couple of drives, so it’s hard to read too much into how game-ready he is as a true freshman. But he certainly passes the smell test. He had one carry for 8 yards and completed 2 of 3 passes. Like Milton, though, Iamaleava’s best pass was the one that he didn’t complete. He escaped pressure and threw a bullet to the end zone, which was just a little too high for his intended receiver. It’s going to be exciting to watch this kid perform next year when the Heupel system is his to run.

6.) A dreadful start on special teams… It was not a good first half on special teams. Two shanked punts gave Virginia outstanding field position on Tennessee’s side of the 50-yard-line. A fumbled punt return did the same. (Those three miscues made Tennessee’s defensive performance in the first half even more impressive. Throw in the turnover on downs at the 29-yard-line and UVA had four possessions in plus territory in the first half, which netted exactly zero points.)

Once Jackson Ross, the freshman Rugby-style punter, settled down, he looked better. I’m not a fan of Rugby-style punting myself. But Ross did have a 50-yard punt, which was nice to see (though he was undeniably upstaged by Daniel Sparks, who boomed a 62-yarder inside the 5-yard-line).

It’s interesting that Kolby Morgan, the Oneida native who left the program after two seasons, had a pretty impressive debut against Tennessee Tech a couple of seasons ago, and also out-performed Ross in the spring Orange & White Game (though, to be fair, Tennessee was strictly pro-style punting in that game, which Ross isn’t used to).

We’ll see if Ross can gain some better consistency as the season progresses.

7.) An electric punt returner. Dee Williams certainly made up for his fumble in the first quarter with his next two punt returns. For that matter, the fumbled return was a good one up until the point that he put the ball on the ground. For the day, Williams returned three punts for 105 yards, and also had the opening kickoff return to midfield. This cat is going to be fun to watch as the season progresses. Odds are he houses one eventually.

8.) “Look at the little Squirrel go…” The ESPN broadcast crew was impressed with wide receiver Squirrel White, and rightfully so. White isn’t the most talented receiver Tennessee has coming back from last year. That goes to Bru McCoy. Keyton may rank ahead of him, too, though the dropped deep ball still stings a little. But White was Milton’s favorite target against Virginia, and showed that he’s going to be one of the better receivers in the SEC this season. He was targeted  seven times and finished with six receptions for 45 yards. McCoy and Keyton were each targeted five times. Squirrel also had the most YAC (yards after catch), with 29.

It wasn’t a terrific day for the wide receivers, given the ability of Virginia’s secondary, but it wasn’t a bad day, either.

9.) What rules change? Some wondered if college football’s rules change — the clock no longer stops on first down, except inside the final two minutes of each half, which makes the college game a little more like the NFL — would hinder Josh Heupel’s hurry-up offense. In its money-hungry wisdom, the NCAA hierarchy adopted the rules change to try to shorten game times that often stretch beyond 3.5 hours but didn’t do anything to address the maddeningly frequent commercial breaks that do far more to extend games than the clock stoppages on first down.

Anyhow, Tennessee ran 85 plays against Virginia.

No, the rules change isn’t going to matter a whole lot.

10.) A record crowd. It has long perplexed midstate football fans that a lot of East Tennesseans have never embraced the Tennessee Titans. The reason is simple, really. It goes back to when the franchise moved to Nashville. No effort was really made at the time by the Oilers to endear themselves to East Tennesseans, and many University of Tennessee fans saw the NFL franchise as Nashville’s best effort to compete with the UT football brand (since, let’s face it, Vanderbilt is certainly never gonna).

So expect to hear a lot of crowing from UT fans after a record crowd of 69,507 fans packed Nissan Stadium for Saturday’s game.

In other words, Tennessee put more fans in the Titans’ stadium than the Titans ever have.

Yeah, that’ll be a talking point.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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