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HomeSportsTennessee FootballTennessee vs. Austin Peay: 10 points

Tennessee vs. Austin Peay: 10 points

Despite being a 48-point favorite, Tennessee struggled against FCS opponent Austin Peay in Saturday’s home opener at Neyland Stadium, eventually winning 30-13. Here are 10 things that stood out…

1.) An awful game by Tennessee’s receivers

Tennessee receivers had one of their worst games, as a unit, in recent memory. There were several dropped passes, three holding or offensive pass interference penalties in the first half, and zero separation downfield — against what will be one of the least talented secondaries that UT faces this season.

One bright spot was tight end McCallan Castles, who caught a pass and broke free for a 43-yard touchdown in the second half. Overall, though, it was a dismal day for the receiving corps, even though Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy each had five receptions.

2.) Joe Milton is not Hendon Hooker

Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton has become an oddly divisive figure among the Tennessee fanbase. There are those who are hyperbolically picking apart every move he makes on the field, and others who are blindly defending him.

The truth is that Milton is off to a so-so start. Every Tennessee fan hoped that the Vanderbilt and Clemson games to end the 2022 season were evidence that Milton had grown enough to slide comfortably into Hendon Hooker’s shoes. But after two games against inferior competition to start the 2023 season, it seems safe to say that Milton is not — nor will be — another Hendon Hooker.

Let’s not get too carried away with Milton’s performance. He was named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Week after the season-opening win over Virginia for a reason. He had one bad series but otherwise looked quite serviceable — if not downright outstanding.

But the Austin Peay game was a different story. Milton got off to a 1 of 8 start. That was primarily because of receivers’ dropped balls — but several of those drops were aided by inaccurate throws or throws that had too much zip on them. They’re passes that Division I receivers have to catch, but Milton isn’t doing his receivers many favors with the way he’s throwing the football.

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For Tennessee to replicate its success from 2022 — when it jumped to the top of the polls and into the College Football Playoff picture — it has to have a quarterback who can run Josh Heupel’s offense the way Hendon Hooker ran it. Milton is the most physically talented quarterback in all of college football. But he’s still struggling to perform on the same level that Hooker performed on, although the Vandy and Clemson games gave hope that he could.

Tennessee’s complete lack of a downfield passing game against Austin Peay — and, make no mistake, the downfield passing game was completely non-existent — said more about the Vols’ receivers than it did Milton. But Milton doesn’t get a free pass. It has become painfully obvious that his coaches have had to dial back the offense for him, and that is a tremendous concern as Tennessee enters SEC play.

3.) Offensive woes

It was a bit concerning that Tennessee got off to such a slow start offensively against Virginia. But most of us chalked it up to first-game jitters and rust and assumed that the Vols would party against Austin Peay. To the contrary, Tennessee’s offense looked far worse against the Governors (which gave up 49 points to Southern Illinois last week) than it did against the Cavs.

Is it time to officially start to worry? Maybe. Next Saturday’s game in The Swamp will tell us much more about the Vols’ offense than what we know right now. But if Tennessee goes down to Florida — facing a defense that is light years ahead of the two it has faced thus far — and performs the same way it has thus far, it will be a long day inside Ben Griffin Hill Stadium.

Joe Milton finished 21 of 33 through the air against Virginia, but a telling point was his yards-per-pass average — just 6.9. Despite completing 21 passes, he only had 228 yards. That’s because Tennessee relied almost exclusively on wide receiver screens and an underneath passing game after the first quarter. And the Vols struggled to even execute those passes, with receivers called for two holds and an offensive pass interference penalty in the first half.

It is almost unimagineable that a Josh Heupel offense didn’t put up a touchdown against an FCS opponent until just before the end of the first half. Prognosticator Jimmy Hyams said early in the day Saturday that he didn’t expect Tennessee to take Austin Peay lightly because Heupel’s teams seem to have fun playing the game regardless of the quality of the opponent. I agreed at the time, but Saturday’s game may have been the first time in three seasons that we’ve seen a Heupel team play down to the level of its opponent.

4.) The mistakes are fixable

One very important note to make about Tennessee’s struggles against Austin Peay: The troubles right now aren’t caused by a lack of talent. Top to bottom, this is the most talented team that Josh Heupel has had at Tennessee. Joe Milton is the most talented quarterback in the country; he can throw it 75 yards without even trying too hard. The wide receiving corps — led by Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White — are plenty capable. We haven’t seen the offensive line at full strength yet. And the Vols’ running backs are the deepest Tennessee has had in several seasons.

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There’s nothing wrong with the offense that cannot be fixed, and Heupel is an offensive mastermind. There’s cause for concern, but it’s way too early to hit the panic button. Let’s wait and see how the Vols look against Florida.

5.) An awful officiating effort

It’s hard to say who had the worst day inside Neyland Stadium Saturday: Tennessee’s receivers, or the SEC officiating crew assigned to the game.

It was a pathetic effort by the guys in stripes, one that should draw an official review and then a rebuke from the SEC front office (but don’t hold your breath). It was actually a far worse effort than the officiating in the infamous Ole Miss game two years ago that made national headlines when UT fans peppered the field with plastic bottles.

Some will say (and have already said) that Tennessee should have never let Austin Peay hang around and then the officiating wouldn’t have mattered. That’s fair enough. But if we’re going to critique the efforts of the players, it isn’t unfair to critique the efforts of the officials.

There were far too many questionable calls to mention them all individually, but a few were especially egregious. The holding call on Bru McCoy in the first half that incensed Josh Heupel. The failure to overturn the strip fumble in the third quarter. A no-call on Austin Peay pass interference in the end zone in the third quarter.

There were other calls that were more questionable than obvious. The two pass interference penalties against Kamal Hadden fall into that category. Most analysts will say the penalties were deserved because Hadden never turned around to look for the ball. That’s certainly a valid point even if the passes were woefully underthrown and the receiver simply stopped running. However, the same sauce that’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Where was the pass interference against Austin-Peay in the end zone in the third quarter? It was a drive-killing no-call that forced Tennessee to settle for three instead of scoring a touchdown.

Without question, the most egregious call of the night was the failure of the replay booth to overturn the Austin Peay fumble in the third quarter. It was a completed pass and subsequent strip, and it wasn’t even close. It’s one thing for officials to miss the call in live action, and quite another for replay officials to be able to watch the play multiple times and in slow motion and still not get it right. I find myself asking multiple times each season, “If you’re not going to overturn that call, what’s the point of even having replay?” The fumble that wasn’t a fumble was definitely one of those calls.

We usually say, “The officiating didn’t make a difference in the ballgame.” Saturday’s officiating did. Not in the outcome, obviously, but the horrible calls kept disrupting the flow of the game. It seemed like every time Tennessee would make a big play to start building momentum, the officials would interject themselves with a questionable call.

The officiating doesn’t excuse Tennessee’s lackluster performance, but the Vols would likely have scored 40-plus if not for the terrible calls. It’s probably fair to say that the officials took at least a couple of touchdowns off the board.

6.) Credit Austin Peay

The Governors didn’t just show up at Neyland Stadium to collect their paycheck. Nor did they show up to just make a decent showing in a high-profile game. They came to win the thing, Tennessee’s conference affiliation and Top 10 national ranking be darned.

It was obvious from the opening drive, when Austin Peay went for it on fourth down deep on its end of the field and broke off a 42-yard quarterback keeper, that the Governors weren’t at Neyland Stadium to simply keep the game closer than the experts expected.

Scotty Walden had an outstanding game plan and did a fantastic job not only motivating his team but keeping them motivated throughout the game. Hat’s off to him and his staff. Austin Peay looked far, far better against Tennessee than it actually is.

7.) Did the disruptions play a role?

The start of Saturday’s game was delayed by 30 minutes due to lightning. Players didn’t take the field for warmups after the delay until 5:17pm, and Tennessee did not make its traditional entrance through the Power T formed by the Pride of the Southland Band.

Though it never actually rained over Neyland Stadium, the weather delay obviously had a dampening effect. The sell-out crowd of over 100,000 was strangely subdued from the opening kickoff.

So how much of that carried over to Tennessee’s performance? Maybe a little; maybe a lot. It isn’t an excuse, but it appeared to be a factor.

8.) The defense shines

Tennessee’s defense continues to look much, much improved from a year ago. The Vols had seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss against Austin Peay, while giving up only 79 yards on the ground and limiting the Governors to 2.3 yards per carry.

Austin Peay got things going a little bit in the fourth quarter and put its only touchdown on the board. Prior to that, I would have ranked the defensive effort by Tennessee an A+. As it was, it was another successful day for the defense. The 2023 Tennessee defense and the 2022 Tennessee offense, paired together, would’ve undoubtedly have been a playoff qualifier — and perhaps more than that.

Aaron Beasley was exceptional. He had eight solo tackles, including two sacks and five tackles for loss … and almost all of that production was in the first half.

Now, granted, there are much tougher challenges coming for this improving defense. Florida isn’t a world-beater on the offensive side of the football, but will still feature a more potent offensive threat than either Austin Peay or Virginia offered. If Tennessee emerges from The Swamp with a defensive performance similar to what we saw in Nashville and Knoxville to open the season, then we can safely say that defensive coordinator Tim Banks is earning every penny of his salary.

9.) Dee Williams is explosive

It hasn’t happened yet, but mark it down: Senior Dee Williams is going to break either a punt or a kickoff — or both, and perhaps multiple times — for a touchdown as this season progresses.

Williams averaged 20.5 yards on two kick returns, and only averaged 9 yards on two punt returns, but he shows every quality you want in a return specialist. His moment is coming.

10.) Punting heartburn

Freshman Rugby-style punter Jackson Ross didn’t look much better against Austin Peay than he did against Virginia. He averaged 43 yards per punt on four tries against the Governors, and had a long of 49, but he continues to be inconsistent. His first punt was 30 yards and went out of bounds.

I like what former Tennessee kicker Fuad Reveiz had to say before the game regarding the switch to Rugby-style punting: “It presents an opportunity to screw something up that you don’t have to screw up.” Ditto that. I’ve never been a fan of the style and it seems like it’s just a matter of time before one of these shanked punts hurts Tennessee in a big way.

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Despite being a 48-point favorite, Tennessee struggled against FCS opponent Austin Peay in Saturday’s home opener at Neyland Stadium, eventually winning 30-13. Here are 10 things that stood out…

1.) An awful game by Tennessee’s receivers

Tennessee receivers had one of their worst games, as a unit, in recent memory. There were several dropped passes, three holding or offensive pass interference penalties in the first half, and zero separation downfield — against what will be one of the least talented secondaries that UT faces this season.

One bright spot was tight end McCallan Castles, who caught a pass and broke free for a 43-yard touchdown in the second half. Overall, though, it was a dismal day for the receiving corps, even though Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy each had five receptions.

2.) Joe Milton is not Hendon Hooker

Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton has become an oddly divisive figure among the Tennessee fanbase. There are those who are hyperbolically picking apart every move he makes on the field, and others who are blindly defending him.

The truth is that Milton is off to a so-so start. Every Tennessee fan hoped that the Vanderbilt and Clemson games to end the 2022 season were evidence that Milton had grown enough to slide comfortably into Hendon Hooker’s shoes. But after two games against inferior competition to start the 2023 season, it seems safe to say that Milton is not — nor will be — another Hendon Hooker.

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Let’s not get too carried away with Milton’s performance. He was named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Week after the season-opening win over Virginia for a reason. He had one bad series but otherwise looked quite serviceable — if not downright outstanding.

But the Austin Peay game was a different story. Milton got off to a 1 of 8 start. That was primarily because of receivers’ dropped balls — but several of those drops were aided by inaccurate throws or throws that had too much zip on them. They’re passes that Division I receivers have to catch, but Milton isn’t doing his receivers many favors with the way he’s throwing the football.

For Tennessee to replicate its success from 2022 — when it jumped to the top of the polls and into the College Football Playoff picture — it has to have a quarterback who can run Josh Heupel’s offense the way Hendon Hooker ran it. Milton is the most physically talented quarterback in all of college football. But he’s still struggling to perform on the same level that Hooker performed on, although the Vandy and Clemson games gave hope that he could.

Tennessee’s complete lack of a downfield passing game against Austin Peay — and, make no mistake, the downfield passing game was completely non-existent — said more about the Vols’ receivers than it did Milton. But Milton doesn’t get a free pass. It has become painfully obvious that his coaches have had to dial back the offense for him, and that is a tremendous concern as Tennessee enters SEC play.

3.) Offensive woes

It was a bit concerning that Tennessee got off to such a slow start offensively against Virginia. But most of us chalked it up to first-game jitters and rust and assumed that the Vols would party against Austin Peay. To the contrary, Tennessee’s offense looked far worse against the Governors (which gave up 49 points to Southern Illinois last week) than it did against the Cavs.

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Is it time to officially start to worry? Maybe. Next Saturday’s game in The Swamp will tell us much more about the Vols’ offense than what we know right now. But if Tennessee goes down to Florida — facing a defense that is light years ahead of the two it has faced thus far — and performs the same way it has thus far, it will be a long day inside Ben Griffin Hill Stadium.

Joe Milton finished 21 of 33 through the air against Virginia, but a telling point was his yards-per-pass average — just 6.9. Despite completing 21 passes, he only had 228 yards. That’s because Tennessee relied almost exclusively on wide receiver screens and an underneath passing game after the first quarter. And the Vols struggled to even execute those passes, with receivers called for two holds and an offensive pass interference penalty in the first half.

It is almost unimagineable that a Josh Heupel offense didn’t put up a touchdown against an FCS opponent until just before the end of the first half. Prognosticator Jimmy Hyams said early in the day Saturday that he didn’t expect Tennessee to take Austin Peay lightly because Heupel’s teams seem to have fun playing the game regardless of the quality of the opponent. I agreed at the time, but Saturday’s game may have been the first time in three seasons that we’ve seen a Heupel team play down to the level of its opponent.

4.) The mistakes are fixable

One very important note to make about Tennessee’s struggles against Austin Peay: The troubles right now aren’t caused by a lack of talent. Top to bottom, this is the most talented team that Josh Heupel has had at Tennessee. Joe Milton is the most talented quarterback in the country; he can throw it 75 yards without even trying too hard. The wide receiving corps — led by Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White — are plenty capable. We haven’t seen the offensive line at full strength yet. And the Vols’ running backs are the deepest Tennessee has had in several seasons.

There’s nothing wrong with the offense that cannot be fixed, and Heupel is an offensive mastermind. There’s cause for concern, but it’s way too early to hit the panic button. Let’s wait and see how the Vols look against Florida.

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5.) An awful officiating effort

It’s hard to say who had the worst day inside Neyland Stadium Saturday: Tennessee’s receivers, or the SEC officiating crew assigned to the game.

It was a pathetic effort by the guys in stripes, one that should draw an official review and then a rebuke from the SEC front office (but don’t hold your breath). It was actually a far worse effort than the officiating in the infamous Ole Miss game two years ago that made national headlines when UT fans peppered the field with plastic bottles.

Some will say (and have already said) that Tennessee should have never let Austin Peay hang around and then the officiating wouldn’t have mattered. That’s fair enough. But if we’re going to critique the efforts of the players, it isn’t unfair to critique the efforts of the officials.

There were far too many questionable calls to mention them all individually, but a few were especially egregious. The holding call on Bru McCoy in the first half that incensed Josh Heupel. The failure to overturn the strip fumble in the third quarter. A no-call on Austin Peay pass interference in the end zone in the third quarter.

There were other calls that were more questionable than obvious. The two pass interference penalties against Kamal Hadden fall into that category. Most analysts will say the penalties were deserved because Hadden never turned around to look for the ball. That’s certainly a valid point even if the passes were woefully underthrown and the receiver simply stopped running. However, the same sauce that’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Where was the pass interference against Austin-Peay in the end zone in the third quarter? It was a drive-killing no-call that forced Tennessee to settle for three instead of scoring a touchdown.

Without question, the most egregious call of the night was the failure of the replay booth to overturn the Austin Peay fumble in the third quarter. It was a completed pass and subsequent strip, and it wasn’t even close. It’s one thing for officials to miss the call in live action, and quite another for replay officials to be able to watch the play multiple times and in slow motion and still not get it right. I find myself asking multiple times each season, “If you’re not going to overturn that call, what’s the point of even having replay?” The fumble that wasn’t a fumble was definitely one of those calls.

We usually say, “The officiating didn’t make a difference in the ballgame.” Saturday’s officiating did. Not in the outcome, obviously, but the horrible calls kept disrupting the flow of the game. It seemed like every time Tennessee would make a big play to start building momentum, the officials would interject themselves with a questionable call.

The officiating doesn’t excuse Tennessee’s lackluster performance, but the Vols would likely have scored 40-plus if not for the terrible calls. It’s probably fair to say that the officials took at least a couple of touchdowns off the board.

6.) Credit Austin Peay

The Governors didn’t just show up at Neyland Stadium to collect their paycheck. Nor did they show up to just make a decent showing in a high-profile game. They came to win the thing, Tennessee’s conference affiliation and Top 10 national ranking be darned.

It was obvious from the opening drive, when Austin Peay went for it on fourth down deep on its end of the field and broke off a 42-yard quarterback keeper, that the Governors weren’t at Neyland Stadium to simply keep the game closer than the experts expected.

Scotty Walden had an outstanding game plan and did a fantastic job not only motivating his team but keeping them motivated throughout the game. Hat’s off to him and his staff. Austin Peay looked far, far better against Tennessee than it actually is.

7.) Did the disruptions play a role?

The start of Saturday’s game was delayed by 30 minutes due to lightning. Players didn’t take the field for warmups after the delay until 5:17pm, and Tennessee did not make its traditional entrance through the Power T formed by the Pride of the Southland Band.

Though it never actually rained over Neyland Stadium, the weather delay obviously had a dampening effect. The sell-out crowd of over 100,000 was strangely subdued from the opening kickoff.

So how much of that carried over to Tennessee’s performance? Maybe a little; maybe a lot. It isn’t an excuse, but it appeared to be a factor.

8.) The defense shines

Tennessee’s defense continues to look much, much improved from a year ago. The Vols had seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss against Austin Peay, while giving up only 79 yards on the ground and limiting the Governors to 2.3 yards per carry.

Austin Peay got things going a little bit in the fourth quarter and put its only touchdown on the board. Prior to that, I would have ranked the defensive effort by Tennessee an A+. As it was, it was another successful day for the defense. The 2023 Tennessee defense and the 2022 Tennessee offense, paired together, would’ve undoubtedly have been a playoff qualifier — and perhaps more than that.

Aaron Beasley was exceptional. He had eight solo tackles, including two sacks and five tackles for loss … and almost all of that production was in the first half.

Now, granted, there are much tougher challenges coming for this improving defense. Florida isn’t a world-beater on the offensive side of the football, but will still feature a more potent offensive threat than either Austin Peay or Virginia offered. If Tennessee emerges from The Swamp with a defensive performance similar to what we saw in Nashville and Knoxville to open the season, then we can safely say that defensive coordinator Tim Banks is earning every penny of his salary.

9.) Dee Williams is explosive

It hasn’t happened yet, but mark it down: Senior Dee Williams is going to break either a punt or a kickoff — or both, and perhaps multiple times — for a touchdown as this season progresses.

Williams averaged 20.5 yards on two kick returns, and only averaged 9 yards on two punt returns, but he shows every quality you want in a return specialist. His moment is coming.

10.) Punting heartburn

Freshman Rugby-style punter Jackson Ross didn’t look much better against Austin Peay than he did against Virginia. He averaged 43 yards per punt on four tries against the Governors, and had a long of 49, but he continues to be inconsistent. His first punt was 30 yards and went out of bounds.

I like what former Tennessee kicker Fuad Reveiz had to say before the game regarding the switch to Rugby-style punting: “It presents an opportunity to screw something up that you don’t have to screw up.” Ditto that. I’ve never been a fan of the style and it seems like it’s just a matter of time before one of these shanked punts hurts Tennessee in a big way.

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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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