Josh Heupel and the Tennessee football team look to bounce back from their first loss of the season Saturday at noon when in-state rival Tennessee Tech comes to Knoxville for the Vols’ final non-conference opponent before Southeastern Conference (SEC) play begins.
The Vols (1-1) were about as inconsistent as it gets in last Saturday’s 41-34 loss to Pitt in the Johnny Majors Classic. They opened the game as strongly as possible, blocking a punt on Pitt’s first drive and turning it into seven points a play later, but under starting quarterback Joe Milton III, the offense soon stalled out.
Milton came out of the game with an injury late in the second quarter, thrusting Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker into the game. He led the Vols on three touchdown drives, tying the game at one point and bringing them within a score in the game’s final minutes. But with around five minutes left in the game, Hooker was picked off — a failure on his part to see the Pitt safety in midfield.
Hooker’s second-half efforts impressed Heupel but not enough to name him the starter over the struggling Milton. Heupel said postgame he would still have to evaluate the decision day by day. The significance of Milton’s injury will be another factor in Heupel’s decision.
“Hendon did a great job coming off the bench, competing, giving us a chance, making some plays with his feet and being decisive with the ball in his hands,” Heupel said. “There are things he would want to do better and do differently . . . but I thought our football team rallied around him, believed in him, and he went out there and competed.”
Tennessee Tech (0-2) should present an excellent opportunity for the Vols to clean up the mistakes that cost them a winnable game and build up momentum heading into their first SEC game at Florida Sept. 25.
Tech is about as tough an opponent as Bowling Green was. Tennessee could play the same game it did Saturday against Pitt and probably still knock off Tech easily, but this is a great opportunity to focus on technique and the small details that burned them.
Tennessee Tech has lost both its games to start the season by an average margin of 32 points — not particularly close. The Golden Eagles were blown out to open their season at Samford — a 52-14 loss — and then dropped their home-opener versus Furman in shutout fashion, 26-0.
Tech’s quarterback Davis Shanley has had an underwhelming start to his season, a key reason why Tech has struggled so much on offense. Shanley has completed 45.5% of his 55 pass attempts through two games, for 219 yards and a touchdown to four interceptions. Tennessee Tech’s offensive line is subpar as well — Shanley has been sacked four times already — a good sign for Tennessee’s banged up defensive front that’s eager to get after a struggling quarterback.
On defense, the Golden Eagles have allowed 78 points in two games to a pair of Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools. In its annual matchup with a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school, Tech likely won’t fare any better against Tennessee. Leading the way on Tech’s defense is junior linebacker Seth Carlisle, who leads the team in total tackles (17.0) and tackles per game (8.5).
The Golden Eagles’ secondary doesn’t get much better. Whoever starts at quarterback for Tennessee Saturday has a chance to take hold of the starting job heading into conference play.
Whether it’s a healthy Milton, or Hooker’s first start as a Vol, this game could go a long way in establishing the order of Heupel’s quarterback depth chart, something he wasn’t willing to do last Saturday.
“We’re going to go back and look at the tape and evaluate everybody,” Heupel said. “We’ll evaluate the quarterback position as well, but we’ll evaluate everyone and how they played so that may be more opportunities for guys and some of it may just be cleaning up some things that they can control and be better at.”