The Tennessee football team traveled to Columbia, Missouri, looking for its first conference win of the season. The Vols accomplished just that, defeating the Tigers 62-24 in dominating fashion Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Here are three takeaways from Josh Heupel’s first SEC win.
Hat-trick for Evans
Tennessee knew that its biggest key to success would be running the football. Mizzou had one of the worst run defenses in the country and was coming off a loss to Boston College in which it allowed 275 yards on the ground. It was enough for running back Tiyon Evans to say, “We’re going to have fun,” ahead of the matchup. That’s exactly what he did.
Evans had a field day against whatever Mizzou called a run defense. He carried the ball 15 times for 156 yards, and 3 touchdowns, averaging 10.4 yards per carry.
Evans’ first touchdown was routine enough, an 8-yard carry in the first that put Tennessee up 14-3. The Vols started their next possession at their 8-yard line. Evans took the handoff on the first play, found a hole up the middle, and took it 92-yards to the house, untouched. That score set the tone for the rest of the day.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy. We just were locked in and on the same page,” Evans said. “I’d say we were more locked in now than we ever were.”
The Hartsville, South Carolina, native would find the endzone again before the first quarter ended, part of an 217-yard barrage in the game’s first 15 minutes. Evans nearly scored again in the fourth quarter, but came up short on the 1-yard line. Replay review upheld the call, but that only affected Evans’ final line. The game had long been effectively over, behind the first fully cohesive game of Tennessee’s season.
“This is the first time we really played together the whole four quarters as a team,” Evans said. “If we can continue to do that, we can continue to have great outcomes.”
All-around offensive domination
For the first time at Tennessee, Heupel’s up-tempo worked consistently for a full 60 minutes. His system has shown flashes before, but has not been successful over a sustained period of time. That changed Saturday.
Tennessee totaled 677 yard of offense, 40% of its season total entering the day (1689). As a whole Tennessee ran for 452 yards, and passed for 225 more. The Vols’ 62 points were the most they’ve scored since dropping 63 on Mizzou back in 2016.
Because of the run game’s dominance, Hendon Hooker’s performance flew under the radar. But make no mistake, it was another excellent afternoon for the Virginia Tech transfer. He completed 15-of-19 passed for 225 yards and three touchdowns.
Three different receivers caught a touchdown pass, and six players had at least on catch, all of which went more than 10 yards.
In the run game, backups Len’Neth Whitehead and Marcus Pierce Jr. filled in nicely when Evans finally came out of the game. Whitehead had over 70 yards rushing and Pierce scored the Vols’ final touchdown.
“That’s something we’ve been echoing all week, Evans said. “When your number is called, you just have to be ready at all times. And those guys were ready at all times. I salute them for that.”
In total, it was a picture of the offense Heupel wanted to establish when he first arrived. And now that his players have gotten a taste, he believes greater things are in store.
“Some really, really positive things today,” Heupel said. “The ability to run the football, the ability to stretch the field vertically, be accurate and consistent . . . But this is the tip of the iceberg. We’re just scratching the surface of what we’re capable of. There’s a whole lot more for us and our growth.”
Defense does not go unnoticed
As bad as Missouri played, it’s easy to forget that they had a prolific offense that could have challenged Tennessee. Quarterback Connor Bazelak and running back Tyler Badie have been a deadly combination all year. But give credit to defensive coordinator Tim Banks and the UT defense, they completely shut Mizzou down.
The Tigers added a touchdown and some extra yardage in garbage time, but for most of the game, they could not figure out Tennessee’s defense. The Vols’ run defense in particular was something to behold, as Badie was limited to 41 yards and a touchdown.
“Tyler Badie, he’s one of the best backs in the SEC,” junior defensive back Jaylen McCollough said. “Coming in, it was our goal to eliminate him. That’s where their offense comes from. So we played our keys, played our technique. When he got the ball, we rallied to him. Kept him boxed in.”
Bazelak did pass for over 300 yards, but he did not throw a touchdown and was picked off twice. Mizzou’s second offensive touchdown did not come until late in the fourth quarter.
Even more impressive was the fact that Tennessee controlled Mizzou without some of its biggest contributors. Safety Trevon Flowers and linebacker Juwan Mitchell were both inactive, forcing younger guys like Christian Charles, Doneiko Slaughter and Tamarion McDonald into playing time.
Charles had a pass breakup, Slaughter had 3 tackles, including a tackle for loss, and McDonald had 5 tackles and a pass breakup. Good signs out of underclassmen not expected to contribute.
“The strength of one position can never be one guy,” Heupel said. “Next man up mentality. I thought, for the most part, our guys were ready when their opportunity came. They played at a high level today.”
The Vols will look to keep the good times rolling when they host South Carolina next Saturday at Neyland Stadium. That conference game will kick off at noon EST and will be broadcast on ESPN2.