Vols ‘won’ Orange Bowl back in October

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee won the Orange Bowl on the third Saturday of October.

Clemson didn’t get to experience going from the wrong end of the playground to a triumphant field goal against Alabama – in the closing 13 seconds. Clemson didn’t play Alabama or Florida or LSU or Kentucky.

Alabama was the foundation of this truly remarkable season – 11-2 despite many distractions. Turning back the Tide told these Volunteers they could compete with any foe. They used that confidence to stun Clemson, 31-14. In a fringe benefit, coach Dabo Swinney yielded considerable brashness.

Replacement quarterback Joe Milton III performed at a level that made Hendon Hooker proud. Joe passed the pressure test and threw touchdown passes to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton. Joe won bowl MVP honors.

Squirrel caught nine for 108. A more famous slot receiver opted out of the game. I can’t remember his name.

Tennessee’s bend but don’t break defense was absolutely amazing. It gave up 484 yards and 34 first downs but made many clutch plays. Clemson helped by missing three field goals. Freshman Tiger Cade Klubnik completed 30 of 54 passes for 320 yards.

It seemed the game was played in Tennessee territory. Coach Swinney said he had thought the Tigers were very good in the red zone. The Vols adjusted his opinion.

Clemson crossed the 50 on 11 of its 14 possessions. Clemson got only exercise on eight of those 11 possessions.

A fake field goal was fun. Clemson holder Drew Swinney, son of the coach, caught a snap and took off in the general direction of a touchdown. Defensive back Kamal Hadden recognized the ploy and turned the play inside. Linebacker Solon Page led the charge that brought down Swinney.

The Vols looked very smart.

Special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler broke the speed limit racing onto the field to congratulate his people. Ekeler had dug out every Clemson trick play from the last decade. The stop was a personal reward.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks looked smart, too. Linebacker Aaron Beasley was literally all over the field. He led the Vols with 12 tackles, including two sacks that took away 14 yards.

Page had 10 tackles and Hadden nine. Byron Young contributed two sacks. Klubnik absorbed an assortment of hard hits but kept getting up.

Wesley Walker and Tamarion McDonald made interceptions in the fourth quarter to seal it.

Tennessee never trailed but there were a lot of three-and-outs. The outcome was in doubt with 10 minutes remaining. Klubnik ran four yards for the Clemson touchdown that reduced the Vol lead to 21-14. Tennessee answered.

Jaylen Wright launched the deciding drive with three runs, starting from the 25. Milton threw to Keyton over the middle for 13. Keyton got behind the Tigers and Milton threw a long strike, 46 for a touchdown, 8:34 to go.

That Tennessee reaction to the Clemson rally was impressive. The two-TD lead was regained, message delivered, momentum restored.

Chase McGrath, hero of October 15 against Alabama, kicked another field goal.

Josh Heupel didn’t miss the opportunity to do a bit of recruiting.

“Man, all the adversity this group’s faced during their career, what they’ve done in the past 23 months, couldn’t be prouder of a group of individuals – these players, our staff, Vol Nation –everybody that’s been along for the journey, man,” the coach said.

“It’s been a fun climb. The best is yet to come, but I’m really proud of what we did.”

Tossing oranges: Coach Heupel, QB Joe Milton III and QB Hendon Hooker. (Photo/UT Athletics)

Happy ending: Milton wanted Hooker on the podium for the presentation of trophies. When formalities were finished, both lobbed oranges to fans gathered below. I don’t think either quarterback had an incompletion.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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