Well, that was different.
Tennessee had a difficult time putting away Texas A&M but the defense finally did it. Jaylen Wright did a lot, too. And Dee Williams, oh my, Dee Williams.
On a late afternoon of struggles and penalties at beautiful and noisy Neyland Stadium, the very special specialist made winning plays back-to-back in the kicking game. Hustle saved 20 yards. He downed a punt six and three-fourths inches from the end zone. He next broke Aggie hearts with a spectacular punt return for a touchdown – THE touchdown, third quarter, that put the Vols on top to stay.
Charles Campbell added two field goals. The defense made that enough.
The Vols scored only 20 points, about half of last year’s average. Joe Milton III has changed the Tennessee offense. The explosive passing attack that made Josh Heupel famous (and rich) is on the shelf. Joe’s big bombs are more coffee-shop legends than headline material. Receivers must share the blame. Ramel Keyton had a six-point drop.
Joe did deliver a perfect touch throw to Jacob Warren for a touchdown. If you count the fastball that bounced off one Vol to another, Milton made 11 of 22 for 100 yards passing. Surprisingly, he ran, willingly and well – and ran over a defensive back. A heavy majority of the sellout crowd cheered.
Milton lost another interception in the red zone. He was sacked three times. Only once on a fourth-down option was his indecision obvious.
Nico did not play. He probably won’t at Alabama. Keep the faith. He’ll be a sophomore next season.
Texas A&M people must be hurting something awful. Heavily hyped and funded campaigns that collapse are undoubtedly getting old. This one is now 4-3, not all that bad but going nowhere bigger than the mayonnaise bowl. Vol defenders limited the Aggies to 54 yards rushing and one touchdown, matching the lowest total over the last four years.
That doesn’t say much for new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino.
Praise the pressure on quarterback Max Johnson (often hurried and hit on 16 of 34 pass attempts). Praise the secondary. I never thought I’d say that. Hadden could be the Vols’ best corner. I never dreamed I might go there.
As usual, Heupel was more up than down.
“How about that, man! Wow! I haven’t been involved in one like that in a long time.”
The coach said it was a tough game, a fun game. He liked the resiliency of the defense. He loved winning.
“The line of scrimmage was relentless. We dominated. Just an unbelievable performance. We did a great job on the second and third levels as well. Did a good job in the run game.”
Heupel remains in touch with reality.
“Got to play smarter in the red zone. We absolutely crushed ourselves in that part of the field. The penalties just kill you (12 overall for 115 yards).”
Heupel has been talking about playing smart football, about avoiding self-inflicted wounds.
“You can’t do what we did. You change the game. You can’t play second-and-20.”
The coach said what I was thinking about offensive failures.
“Didn’t look like I made a lot of right decisions, for the most part, in those critical situations. I say that just because we didn’t execute some of those.”
Heupel never fails to defend Milton but he spent a minute on Joe’s worst play, the option where he couldn’t decide whether to run or pass.
“The decision in the red zone, just can’t make that one. That was a critical error by him. Sometimes that happens at quarterback. Don’t want it to happen anymore.”
Heupel mentioned everybody getting on the same page. I think he was thinking about the loss of Bru McCoy, tough-guy receiver, knockdown blocker, leader by example. The injured Bru has not yet been replaced.
Tennessee did not start fast. The Aggies drove 80 yards for a 7-0 lead. Milton to Warren tied the score. The Vols sacked Johnson twice but he also converted a third-and-17 under pressure. The visitors were up 10-7 at halftime.
Because of what Williams did for field position, his TD return was 39 yards. He made some magic moves. A lot of teammates helped make it 14-10. Freshman Rickey Gibson had a key block.
The Aggies hit a medium-large pass and cashed in a field goal, 14-13. Tennessee’s offense muffed two opportunities to close the deal but Campbell kicked field goals for a degree of comfort. Defense did what else was needed.
Edge rusher James Pearce had a sack and five of the Vols’ 11 quarterback hurries. Defensive end Tyler Baron contributed a sack and got some TV facetime. Linebackers Aaron Beasley and Elijah Herring played well.
Wright had a season-high 136 yards on 19 runs. Tennessee rushed for 232 against what had been the best run defense in the SEC. Alabama netted 23 against the Aggies the week before. The Tide won with passes. Tennessee won without passes.
The Vols have won 13 in a row at home. The NCAA record for most consecutive home wins is 58 by the Miami Hurricanes from 1985 to 1994.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org