Tennessee Vols Game Grades LSU Edition

The Tennessee Volunteers continue to exorcise demons in a surprising 2022 campaign. There’s been drama in each of the last three games between the Vols and LSU. In 2017, a monsoon moved through Knoxville during halftime and Tennessee’s upset bid was washed out in the Vols’ first game after Butch Jones‘ firing. In 2010, Tennessee thought they had LSU beat, but Derek Dooley‘s clever call of the “13-man defense” was deemed illegal and LSU won the game on the final play.

Tennessee beat LSU on Saturday for the time since 2005, the memorable Hurricane Katrina Game in Baton Rouge. It was Tennessee’s biggest margin of victory in the series since 1940, a 28-0 Vols win.

And the good news for Tennessee fans is that this was as complete as Tennessee has looked against an FBS opponent in the Josh Heupel era. The Vols dominated LSU in all three phases of the game for a complete and impressive win in Baton Rouge. Fortune does indeed seem to be changing for the Vols.

Tennessee Vols Game Grades LSU Edition

Offense: A-

Much of the narrative coming into Saturday centered on the Vols’ offense facing the best defense they’ve seen all season. The Vols offense finally put together a complete effort on the offensive side of the ball. Tennessee has put up points this season but has not been particularly consistent against their two Power 5 opponents.

Saturday was a different story. Hendon Hooker was calm and clinical and the Vols’ rushing attack was more physical than the LSU defense; something most prognosticators did not expect. The stats were impressive considering the quality of the defensive opponent. Tennessee had 27 first downs on 78 total plays, both well above what LSU was yielding per game to date (59 plays and 15 first downs).

You know you have high expectations when you walk away from a game like this feeling like you left several points on the board. Expectations are in the clouds on Rocky Top, and for good reason. This Tennessee offense is really, really good.

Offensive Stat of the Game:  Vols 262 Rushing Yards

Quarterback: A-

Hooker did exactly what Hooker does: he calmly managed this game and made big plays, both with his feet and his arm, when the opportunities presented themselves and when he had to. Hooker’s stat line was pedestrian for a Heisman hopeful, going 17-27 (63%) for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions. He also added 63 rushing yards on 10 carries, including a couple of third-down conversions.

But as pedestrian as that sounds, it’s exactly what he needed to do to squeeze the life out of LSU in Tiger Stadium. Tennessee’s early start was on short drives, so the Vols were able to slow down and leverage the rushing game for much of the game. The only marks against Hooker were four off-target throws in the third quarter after getting hit hard on a pass rush. He also fumbled twice, once on that hit, although both fumbles were recovered by Tennessee.

Hooker continues to position himself for a run at the Heisman Trophy. He’ll get a chance to head-to-head against last year’s winner, Bryce Young, next weekend.

Running Backs: A

Not much to say about the running backs who had a tremendous day against a vaunted LSU rush defense. Jabari Small had 22 carries for 127 yards (5.8 yards/carry) with two touchdowns. Including Small, Tennessee utilized a total of six rushers — three running backs, Hooker, and two receivers. Not only did Tennessee stretch the field by formation, but they also leveraged that stretched formation in the rushing game as well, and LSU had no answer for it.

Jaylen Wright ran well also with 59 yards and 4.9 yards/carry, but had one of the three Tennessee fumbles that were recovered by the Vols. Again, fortune favored the Vols today.

Receivers: A-

Bru McCoy carried the day for the receivers with seven receptions for 120 yards. LSU’s defensive backs looked like they were outmatched against Tennessee’s receiving corp, even with Cedric Tillman still out due to injury. There wasn’t much to mark against the receivers, but both Princeton Fant and Jalin Hyatt had a drop and Hyatt failed to get a first down on a run after catch in the second half. Neither of those turned out to hurt Tennessee this week; but with expectations as high as they are in Knoxville, each of the position groups are looking to execute perfectly. Hyatt did have four receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns, so it was an overall strong day for the receivers.

Offensive Line: A

In our preview look, we identified the matchup of Tennessee’s tackles against LSU’s pass rush specialist BJ Ojulari. The Vols’ offensive line won the matchup on almost every play today. Tennessee faced seven 3rd down and shorts (three yards or less) and converted four of them on the ground. Tennessee was also 3-for-3 on fourth downs as well.

That’s in addition to the total rushing effort of 263 yards. That total is well more than double what LSU was allowing to teams coming into this game (109). Tennessee was able to control the pace of play with 5.4 yards per rush. There are always a few questions about Josh Heupel’s offense, and two of them were answered resoundingly today. First, Tennessee was able to control a game with a big lead by effectively rushing the ball, and, second, a team built on speed and tempo was able to outfight and be more physical than a team that prides itself on physicality and athleticism.

Easily the best game for the offensive line in the Heupel era, notwithstanding the 2021 Missouri game.

Defense: B

Tennessee’s defense entered the chat on Saturday. After getting gashed against Pittsburgh and letting Anthony Richardson have his best day as a collegiate passer, the Vols’ defense showed marked improvement on Saturday, especially against the LSU rushing game.

Tennessee pressured LSU junior quarterback Jayden Daniels all game. Daniels had a 71% completion rate and hit 300 yards passing but much of that is because LSU was forced to pass almost the entire second half. In obvious passing situations, LSU had to settle for short and intermediate passes and could not put together an entire drive when they needed it.

Defensive Stat of the Game: LSU 28 rushes for 55 yards. 

Defensive Line: A+

The defensive line had their best game in several years today. Byron Young, Omari Thomas, Joshua Josephs, Tyler Baron, Dominic Bailey, and Latrell Bumphus accounted for 16 total tackles, 3. 5 sacks, and 4 tackles-for-loss (TFLs). Young had the best day of them all with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2.5 TFLs. Even more important than those gaudy numbers, however, is that Tennessee was able to rotate all six of those players in and out of the game with little to no degradation in ability. Depth on the defensive front is probably the biggest key to being successful in the SEC, behind having a top-tier quarterback, and Tennessee finally seems to be in a good position here.

Linebackers: B

Aaron Beasley set a physical tone from the very first LSU possession and the linebackers didn’t let up. Beasley led the Vols’ defense with nine tackles and added 1.5 TFLs. Roman Harrison, playing mostly as a stand-up end, added seven tackles, a sack, and 1.5 TFLs. Jeremy Banks was his usual guided missile but did have two penalties. And, as usual, the linebackers were simply mediocre in pass coverage. LSU doesn’t have a lot of talent at Tight End, so it didn’t hurt Tennessee too much, but expect Kentucky and Georgia to exploit this weakness.

Defensive Backs: C+

Opponents continue to target the Tennessee secondary and find some success. Daniels was 32-for-45 for 71%, much better than his previous two SEC games (59.5% and 40%), but much of that was because LSU had to pass. Daniels only averaged 9.4 yards per reception and did have one touchdown, but there were several drops but LSU receivers. There were also two 3rd-and-long conversions where the Tennessee secondary allowed underneath completions but wasn’t in a position to make the stop. The Vols secondary was credited with one pass defended, and that went to Tamarion McDonald. While there is certainly an improvement, there’s still plenty of need to get better in the secondary before Tennessee faces Young, Will Levis, and Stetson Bennett in the second half of the season.

As with the rest of the defense, the backs were strong against the run.

Special Teams: A

Chase McGrath was 4-5 on field goals, Tennessee only had two punts, Dee Williams had a 58-yard punt return that set up another early Tennessee score, and the fumble recovery on the opening kick-off set the tone for a dominating performance on Saturday. The only break that Tennessee didn’t get today was McGrath’s 50-yard field goal attempt that clanged off the upright and back into the end zone rather than through the inside of the posts.

Coaching: A-

Tennessee fans must enjoy finally having a coaching staff that puts their team in a position to win and watching the opponent make questionable calls.

LSU head coach Brian Kelly chose to go for it on fourth down early in the game rather than taking a chip shot field goal and getting some points. LSU failed to convert, and Tennessee turned that into a field goal. At the end of the first half, LSU inexplicably went for it again on fourth down rather than punt and gave Tennessee the ball back in the plus territory with 23 seconds to play. Tennessee turned that into a field goal as well to take a 23-7 lead, and the momentum, into halftime.

Meanwhile, the Vols arrived in Baton Rouge focused and played nearly flawlessly. When they did make mistakes, like the three fumbles and the two facemask penalties, they were able to escape punishment for those mistakes. Tennessee was clearly the better-coached team today. Vols fans are not accustomed to that in the recent past.

Looking Ahead

Oh boy. Tennessee and Alabama will meet on the Third Saturday in October next weekend in Knoxville and, depending on the outcome of the Alabama-Texas A&M game, it should be a matchup of undefeated Top 10 teams. If the environment from the Florida game is any indication, Neyland Stadium will be electric.

This Vols team has proven it is a mature team that can handle the pressure of expectations and are unfazed by the failures of the past.

That doesn’t mean that Tennessee is better than Alabama. But, for the first time in a long, long time, Vols fans will be dusting off the cigar box … just in case.