There was no big game hangover in Knoxville on Saturday as the Tennessee Vols came out and scored a record 52 points in the first half against Tennessee-Martin. Both the team and the fans showed up from the opening whistle. The Vols offense continued their dominant play and the defense stymied a quality FCS offense until the game was well out-of-hand.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades UT-Martin Edition
The Volunteer offense continued their torrid pace, setting a Tennessee record for points scored in one half against an outmatched UT-Martin defense. And Tennessee had a legitimate shot at triple digits but started putting reserves in on offense late in the second quarter. Keeping the starters healthy at this point of the season was one of the three keys to this game and was far more important than running up the score against an in-system sister school. The offense played a clean game, with no turnovers — save an interception on the last play of the game.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 15-20 on 3rd Down Conversions
Hendon Hooker continues his stellar season. The Vols signal caller was 18-24 (75%) with 3 touchdowns in a little less than a half’s worth of work on Saturday. Hooker added 28 yards on the ground, including a key conversion on third-and-long. Hooker’s efficiency and accuracy continue to keep him in the conversation as a Heisman favorite.
Joe Milton was able to get a significant amount of snaps on Saturday. And while Milton didn’t put up numbers, it’s worth remembering he was playing with the second team. He still managed 135 yards and a touchdown through the air. Milton’s arm talent is unquestionable, the only question is whether he could complete passes with the same accuracy as Hooker.
Running Backs: B-
Tennessee managed 201 rushing yards but almost a quarter of that was on uncalled quarterback scrambles. Tennessee’s two main backs, Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, only managed 52 yards on 17 carries (3 yards per carry). Freshman Dylan Sampson got the bulk of the work on Saturday and was effective enough, but the Vols couldn’t establish a dominant running attack as you would expect against UT-Martin. In fact, Tennessee kept the play-calling and run scheme about as simple as possible, so the backs did what they needed to but you’d like to see a little more explosiveness from the trio.
Princeton Fant had two rushing touchdowns in a short-yardage situation and established himself as a short-yardage threat. Head Coach Josh Heupel has given future opponents one more thing to consider when watching films going forward.
Tennessee had 26 completions on Saturday among 10 different receivers. Jalin Hyatt continued his All-American and Biletnikoff Award candidacy with seven receptions, 174 yards, and two touchdowns in one half of work. Hyatt continues to shine in the extended absence of Cedric Tillman, one of two offensive starters out of today’s game with an injury. The highlight of the day was the performance of Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White, who had five catches each for 77 and 122 yards respectively, and three total touchdowns. Tennessee’s depth at wide receiver seems to be limitless; Bru McCoy and Fant only had three total receptions for 25 yards. Tennessee has six legitimate threats in its receiving corps.
The only blemish today was Fant’s dropped touchdown pass in the first half. Had he caught that pass, he would have had a rare hat trick of a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown, and passing touchdown.
Offensive Line: B
Gerald Mincey was the second Tennessee offensive starter that missed today’s game due to injury. After a dominating performance against Alabama, the offensive line was a little tamer against UT-Martin today. The Vols were not able to establish a dominant rushing attack, although they were able to get yards and first downs when needed.
It is this unit that showed the biggest drop-off between the starters and the second team, as the Vols front five couldn’t push the UT-Martin front around in the second half.
Tim Banks‘ aggressive defense turned in a typical performance on Saturday. The Vols yielded almost 400 yards to an FCS team — albeit one with a pretty good offense — but held the SkyHawks to one score until three minutes remaining in the third quarter and the game well, well out of hand. The Vols’ defense took the ball away twice, once on a fumble and once on an interception. Both turnovers were in the first half and stymied UT-Martin drives that were approaching the red zone. The Vols’ defense stood when it mattered most, holding the Skyhawks to 3-15 on 3rd or 4th down conversion attempts.
Defensive Stat of the Game: UT-Martin 3-15 on 3rd/4th Down
Defensive Line: A-
Tennessee’s rushing defense continues to be good, although that’s somewhat a product of the offense putting pressure on opposing teams. Either way, the Vols front held UT-Martin to 76 rushing yards on 29 carries (2.6 yards per carry). That will almost certainly keep Tennessee second in rushing defense in the SEC. Tyre West showed promise with depth on the defensive front as he played his best game of the season with one sack, one tackle-for-loss (TFL), and one QB Hurry.
Two linebackers were out for Tennessee on Saturday, but it didn’t show in their performance. Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks continued their attacking play against the Skyhawks and cleaned up any rushing attack that was able to leak past the defensive front. They weren’t tested too often in the short or release passing attack. Solon Page had a solid game at linebacker with one sack and two TFLs in addition to two tackles.
Defensive Backs: C-
The defensive backfield was admittedly short, with Kamal Hadden, Jaylen McCollough, and Warren Burrell all out of the lineup. But the Vols’ pass defense still gave up over 300 yards to an FCS quarterback. Trevon Flowers led the defensive backfield, which played a dozen different players. It’s great to get experience, but the reserves still have to make plays to make that experience pay off.
In addition to Flowers, Tamarion McDonald and Andre Turrentine added four tackles each. If Tennessee wants to stay in the hunt for a championship, the defensive backs have to play better. And they’ll be tested starting next week.
Special Teams: B
Two sub-par punts, a missed extra point, and a missed field goal counter-acted some decent punt-returning performances from Dee Williams. In games against Kentucky and Georgia, the special teams will have to make material contributions for the Vols to find success.
The Vols had no apparent hangover from last week’s big win, and that was really the one thing the coaches are judged on in games like this. Heupel’s staff did a good job getting the reserves in at the right time and challenging them with executing the game plan on both sides of the ball.
Tennessee finds itself at the cusp of a championship run — a place it hasn’t been in since 2007. The next two weeks will determine if that run continues. The Vols host Kentucky next week at home in a night game. The Wildcats entered 2022 with Division title aspirations. The early season has disappointed the Kentucky program. They’ll be looking for redemption by knocking off Tennessee and potentially getting back into the SEC East mix next weekend. Will Levis, Chris Rodriguez, and a talented group of receivers will challenge Banks’ bend-but-don’t-break defense? You can bet Kentucky will be ready to go next week; the Vols must match their intensity if they want to keep their championship run going.
Main image courtesy of Dan Harralson, Vols Wire