Tennessee Game Grades Ball State Edition

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Tennessee‘s opening game went as well as it could have for the Vols on Thursday night. Compared to a similar caliber opponent from last year, the Vols looked much better. As we said in our game preview, this game was all about execution.

Volunteers faithful should not get too far ahead of themselves. This Ball State squad isn’t a particularly good team. They were a sub-.500 MAC team last season and are picked to finish dead last in their division this season.

Tennessee Vols Game Grades Ball State Edition

Offense: A

Tennessee’s offense was a solid A effort Thursday night. The playbook was simple and the Vols still scored 59 points against another FBS team. It was a balanced effort all around, with Hendon Hooker looking solid, Joe Milton also playing well in the second half, and the running game providing a consistent churn of yardage.

But the Vols offense wasn’t quite as good as the score showed. They were only 3-for-10 on third down conversions and needed several Ball State penalties to get first downs and keep drives going. It wasn’t Ball State’s best performance, even considering the circumstances.

Offensive Stat of the Game:  0 Turnovers until under 5:00 left in the 4th quarter. 

Quarterback: A

Hooker did everything head coach Josh Heupel wanted him to do. Namely, he made the right decisions all night and was consistent for the two-plus quarters he played. Hooker did have a couple of overthrows early in the game but was almost perfect in the second quarter the one drive he played in the first half. Hooker finished 18-25 with 222 passing yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Hooker added 12 yards and two additional touchdowns on the ground.

Joe Milton led two scoring drives, including a 93-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, showing both his physical gifts and better decision-making.

Tennessee’s coaching staff has to feel great about their quarterback room after Game Number One.

Running Backs: A-

Jabari Small led the Tennessee rushing attack on Thursday night with some key third and fourth down conversion runs. Jaylen Wright had the best numbers on the night, with 88 yards on 13 carries, but he missed a few holes and wasn’t nearly as consistent as Small. Freshman Dylan Sampson looked good in his debut with the Vols, adding 32 yards and a touchdown in second-half action. The only critique of the running game on Thursday night was the lack of any truly explosive plays.

Receivers: A

Hooker and Milton did an excellent job of spreading the ball around. A total of nine Vols had a reception on Thursday night. Tennessee’s three passing touchdowns were also spread across three different receivers, including Jimmy Holiday, Jalin Hyatt, and Walker Merrill. Only one noticeable drop from Princeton Fant in the first quarter that stalled a drive and resulted in a field goal. Picking up from last season, the receivers had a strong night blocking.

Offensive Line: A

The offensive line, like the rest of the offense, had a solid night. Gerald Mincey likely earned the starting role at left tackle moving forward. Pass protection was excellent and the big guys created enough holes to spring the running backs, but they weren’t as dominant against an undersized and outmatched defensive front.

Defense: A-

Tennessee’s defense had a solid night, but there were some things that will show up on film that they’ll have to address quickly before heading to the Steel City next weekend. Again – the Vols did not see the best version of Ball State that they could have faced. Ball State’s offense stumbled on several occasions leading to some missed opportunities. The Vols defense ended up yielding 343 total yards to a very mediocre offense, but the final result was still better than many expected.

The good news is Ball State was only 5-14 on 3rd down, 0-2 on 4th down, and Tennessee’s red zone defense was solid. Those were the two biggest deficiencies of last year’s defense.

Defensive Stat of the Game: 0 Sacks.  

Defensive Line: A-

The defensive line played well against the run, which should be Ball State’s strength this season. They weren’t able to get any sustained pressure up the middle, however. And Tennessee will play much better offensive lines, starting next week against Pittsburgh. It was refreshing to see a healthy rotation of defensive linemen.

Linebackers: A

A real solid night from the linebackers corps tonight, again, especially in the run game. Tackling was on point and they played with controlled aggression. While the Vols weren’t able to get the quarterback on the ground, there was pressure that lead to several missed opportunities for the Ball State passing game.

Defensive Backs: A

There were no big plays that gashed the defense, which was an emphasis for improving the defensive backfield. Warren Burrell looked improved at corner, and newcomer Kamal Hadden had some key moments, including an interception. Both corners, plus safety Trevon Flowers, were very solid in coming up and supporting the run defense. Ball State is not the litmus test for this defense, however.

Special Teams: B+

The kickoff return was shaky and Tennessee’s only first-half punt was almost blocked. Chase McGrath was solid in the kicking game, and Tennessee’s coverage teams were fine. Future opponents will keep an eye on the punt team though, which could be costly in a close game against a conference opponent.

Coaching: A

The defensive backs looked better, in both execution and technique. The game execution was solid, and the penalty sheet was relatively clean. More importantly, the team was clearly focused and sharp coming out of the first game of the season.

Offensive Coordinator Alex Golesh kept the play calling basic, which is always beneficial against an overmatched opponent. Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks dialed up several blitzes, but that was likely to get an aggressive mindset in the defense on the first night of the season.

Looking Ahead

The Vols travel to Pittsburgh to face defending ACC Champion Pitt next week in the away portion of the Johnny Majors Classic. Pittsburgh will be much, much better than Ball State and probably better than they were last year. They’ll be coming off a highly charged opening game, the renewal of the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia.

Tennessee’s performance tonight is a clear indication that they can compete with a Top 25 team. They’ll have to have a little bit better grades to go into Pittsburgh and win, however.