TN vs TN Tech

Alontae Taylor, #2, points at cheering attendees while approaching the end-zone in the football game against Tennessee Tech, held in the Neyland Stadium on September 18th.

The Tennessee football team blew past in-state rival Tennessee Tech 56-0 Saturday at Neyland Stadium in its final game before conference play.

The Vols took advantage of a bad Tennessee Tech team and put together their best effort of the young season.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Quarterback

Hendon Hooker started his first game as a Vol due to Joe Milton III’s leg injury and turned in the Vols’ finest showing this season. Hooker completed 17-of-25 passes for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns – all season-highs for a UT quarterback.

Hooker also impacted the game on the ground, rushing for 64 yards and finishing as Tennessee’s leading rusher. With a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Hooker totaled 4 touchdowns, the most of any Tennessee quarterback since 2016.

But the same problems – overthrown passes and turnovers – continued to plague Hooker, even against Tech. On Tennessee’s first drive of the day, Hooker tried back-to-back long passes to JaVonta Payton down the sideline, both incompletions. The first was not on Hooker, Payton dropped it. The second one was overthrown. Hooker also had Tennessee’s only turnover of the day, a second-quarter fumble.

Harrison Bailey got the fourth quarter and completed 3-of-7 passes for 16 yards.

Grade: B+

Running backs

With Jabari Small out with an injury, Tiyon Evans earned his first career start coming back from an injury of his own. The transfer from Hutchinson carried the ball 15 times for 41 yards and a touchdown.

Freshman Jaylen Wright also saw increased action in Small’s absence. He had 9 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Grade: B

Receivers/tight ends

Saturday was the best game yet for Tennessee’s receiving corps. Eleven different Vols caught a pass as Tennessee torched Tech in the air.

Velus Jones Jr. led the way with 3 receptions for 65 yards. He hauled in Hooker pass for a 45-yard score – his longest of the season. Jones caught the pass, broke 2 tackles and ran 30 yards after the catch for the score.

Payton caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hooker in the first quarter, and finished with 3 receptions and 46 yards. The Mississippi State transfer did, however, drop a long pass from Hooker that would have likely gone for a score.

Tight end Jacob Warren caught 3 passes for 10 yards, including a goal-line touchdown, his second-consecutive game with a TD.

Freshman Walker Merrill made the first start of his career and led the Vols with 4 catches. He caught the first pass of his collegiate career and a long of 16 yards.

Grade: A-

Offensive line

Tennessee’s offensive line was banged up for the second week, as starting center Cooper Mays was inactive for the second-straight week Ollie Lane started at left guard, and Jerome Carvin shifted to center, but even that combination wasn’t perfect. Lane went down with an injury and missed some snaps, and backup left guard Kingston Harris came up injured in his debut as well.

Despite the injuries, the line held their own against a bad Tech defensive attack. The O-line committed only 1 penalty after 11 over the first two weeks, and allowed only 1 sack in fourth-quarter garbage time.

The line was good enough in run-protection – 4.3 yards per attempt – and was even better in pass protection, allowing Hooker to lead the way.

Grade: B+

Defensive line

Tennessee’s defensive line took advantage of Tech’s offensive line and sacked the Golden Eagles’ quarterback four times. Tyler Baron and Ja’Quain Blakely combined for a sack on third down in Tech’s first drive that forced them to punt.

Byron Young made his Tennessee debut after being ruled ineligible for the first two games of the season. He totaled 6 tackles, tied for the team lead.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The linebacking corps. kept up the good work versus the Eagles, as Solon Page III had the most notable defensive play of the game. He picked off Shanley Davis in the third quarter and took it 31 yards to the endzone, Tennessee’s first pick-6 of the year.

Sophomore backup Morven Joseph made the most of his limited playing time with a fourth-quarter sack, and starter Aaron Beasley also got to the quarterback for 0.5 a sack.

In total, the Vols front-seven held Tech to just 70 rushing yards on 28 carries, averaging a mere 1.3 yards per rush.

Grade: A

Secondary

Josh Heupel said during the week leading to the game that it was more “bad luck” than anything else that the turnovers weren’t coming for the Vols. Well, Saturday they finally did.

After going two games without a turnover, the Vols’ secondary pounced all over Tennessee Tech’s three quarterbacks, Willie Miller, Shanley and Drew Martin. Jaylen McCollough set the tone for the day with a first-quarter pick off Miller. It was the Vols’ first interception of the season.

Senior Alontae Taylor and sophomore Tamarion McDonald would each add an interception of their own. It was the first time since 2019 the Vols had 4 interceptions in a single game.

Out of the back field, Theo Jackson and Doneiko Slaughter each had a sack, as the Vols’ secondary held the Golden Eagles to 144 passing yards and 47.2% completion rate.

Grade: A+

Special teams

Tennessee’s special teams has been one of its biggest strengths, and Saturday was no different. Jones took the game’s opening kickoff all the way to the TTU 2-yard line, but it was called back on a Len’Neth White penalty. Jones was all over the field in the return game, totaling 55 return yards.

Penalties were the only weak spot for the Vols’ third phase. In addition to the White penalty, Jimmy Holliday was flagged for roughing the punter, and it extended a Tech drive.

Also notable on special teams was that senior punter Paxton Brooks was in uniform on the sideline but inactive. True freshman Kolby Morgan handled the punting duties well, to a tune of 42.3 yards per punt and a long of 55.

Chase McGrath made all six of his point-after attempts, and freshman JT Carver made his one attempt.

Grade: A

Coaching

Give credit where credit is due. Heupel and Co. cleaned up nearly all of the penalties and mistakes that plagued the Vols in their first two games. Tennessee committed just 3 penalties for 34 yards, compared to 18 for 179 against Bowling Green and Pitt.

The Vols also cut back on turnovers, with Hooker’s fumble the only one of the day. Paired with the 4 interceptions, Tennessee’s turnover margin fell to a season low -1, after being as high as -5.

The caveat, of course, is that Tennessee Tech was a flat-out bad team. But after the tough Pitt loss, the Vols’ mindset was in the right spot. They went to the office and took care of business with ease.

Grade: A

Overall

It’s hard to argue with a 56-0 blowout. The Vols’ 8 total touchdowns were their most since 2018. Again, it was against an FCS school, but Tennessee did exactly what it needed by cleaning up its play.

Heupel and the Vols have plenty of questions ahead of them before traveling to Gainesville for a primetime matchup with Florida Saturday night, but for now, the Vols’ passed their latest test with flying colors.

Grade: A

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