Tennessee rollicked and rolled – but how bad was Virginia

Marvin Westwestwords

Opening synopsis: Interesting show, far more good than bad in Tennessee’s opening romp.

Dr. Danny White was right about the BYU buyout and the assumption that more Tennessee fans would show up in Nashville than Provo. Full house, stadium attendance record, 69,507. Happy faces. Vols beat the 28-point betting line.

Virginia was not quite ready for the intensity. I seldom feel sorry for foes that accept $1.5 million to risk health and happiness as a setup for the Volunteers but I flinched when the Cavaliers lost quarterback Tony Muskett. He competed as best he could under heavy pressure.

That last part – heavy pressure – implied Tennessee is much improved on rushing the passer or Virginia’s offensive line is really bad. Probably some of both. We’ll see.

I’m not sure what else I saw. No way to tell just yet if the Vols are 49-13 good or Virginia is just plain awful. Tennessee generated 499 yards of total offense. It scored all seven times it reached the red zone. The system was not always smoothly in rhythm but the potential was obvious. Sophomore Dylan Sampson scored four touchdowns, three short runs and a nifty pass reception. Jaylen Wright gained 115 yards rushing.

The offensive line excelled, even without center Cooper Mays. The Vols averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

“Tennessee is good,” said Virginia defensive lineman Kam Butler. “What they do, they do it at a high level. Obviously with the tempo, they do that at a high level, too. Everybody’s big. We just didn’t execute.”

Quarterback Joe Milton III #7 was 21 of 30 for 201 yards. He accounted for four TDs (two rushing, two passing) in three quarters. (Photo by Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics)

Joe Milton III was plenty good enough but not great. Many eyes were focused on him. Doubts still linger for some. He managed the game. He did not make serious mistakes. He did not hold the ball too long. He was sacked once.

Milton’s numbers were OK – 21 of 30 for 201 yards. He accounted for four TDs (two rushing, two passing) in three quarters. His big bomb, 70 or 75 yards, was spot on. Wide open Ramel Keyton just plain dropped it.

The Vol defense was more impressive. It looked bigger, faster and tougher than I remember from last November at South Carolina. Young players triggered some excitement. Youth is famous for making more mistakes but this group, if it errs, will be going forward.

Defenders tackled well. They were not flagged for numerous fouls. They actually looked like they had been coached.

Edge rushers James Pearce Jr. and Tyler Baron had a pair of sacks each. Linebacker Elijah Herring led with five tackles.

“I do feel good about the development of our young guys,” said Josh Heupel.

The coach said a lot of other stuff. He thanked Vol Nation for showing up. He described the victory as “positive.”

“I thought our front four did an unbelievable job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Secondary was rock solid early and that carried over for a majority of the game.”

Heupel said there are some things to clean up with special teams.

There sure are. Somewhat famous punter Jackson Ross, 24, graduate of Australian Rules Football, shanked two out of bounds for 17 and 27 yards. Dee Williams fumbled on a punt return. Josh Turbyville kicked two kickoffs out of bounds.

Nothing wrong with Charles Campbell’s extra points. He was seven for seven.

Ten Vols caught passes. Nobody had numbers to brag about. Squirrel White caught six for 45 yards and went out with an injury. Highly regarded transfer Dont’e Thornton caught two for 12.

Nico made his debut. Heupel had to search but found points of pride for Iamaleava.

“Same things we see (in practice) – really calm, able to communicate, handles all the pre-snap stuff the right way.”

Nico completed two of three passes for 11 yards. He ran once for eight. Heupel mentioned athleticism.

“I love the feel in the pocket, being able to step up, get out, go make a play with his feet.”

Heupel, his staff and thousands of fans see Nico as the future.

Special moment: Sixth-year tight end Jacob Warren (from Farragut) caught a TD pass from Milton. It was his first score since November 6, 2021 versus Kentucky. Jacob has excelled as a blocker and team leader in between touchdowns.

Next game: I don’t have anything to say about Austin Peay football. I’ve heard the school offers resources of a major university, with a small college feel. I like Clarksville.

Best I can tell, old friend Phillip Fulmer made this arrangement in 2019. The Govs were offered a $550,000 reward if they would come to Neyland Stadium and behave themselves on this particular date.

Before they load up the bus, they are perfect examples of why there should be a nine-game SEC schedule.

Tennessee football Saturdays are such precious days and there are so few. Each deserves good weather, a worthy opponent and the potential to be meaningful. Give us Auburn or LSU or even Mississippi State. Let Ball State, the Akrons and UT-Martins play each other.

Next season, UT plays Chattanooga, Kent State and UTEP.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.


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