After another long, tumultuous offseason, the Tennessee Volunteers took to the field on Thursday night to kick off yet another new era of football. Josh Heupel is now the man in charge, bringing his high-powered offense to Knoxville with him. Also coming with him was Joe Milton, a transfer from Michigan and native of Orlando.
Milton was named the starter on Monday, and got off to a white hot start to open the game against Bowling Green. The 6-5, 244 pound quarterback had the Volunteers up 14-0 after just a handful of minutes. He was efficient and attacking, taking what was given to him and moving quickly down the field. Milton scored the game’s first touchdown, keeping the ball himself on a four yard touchdown run.
However, after those two touchdowns, the wheels fell off for Milton. A disastrous second quarter had Bowling Green in striking distance at halftime, as the Falcons trailed 14-6. Milton struggled to complete passes, or even find an open receiver. To be fair, he wasn’t exactly helped by his receivers either, as Jalin Hyatt had two key drops.
Tennessee went back to the ground game to open the third quarter with great success. You kind of got the sense that Heupel knew he could have what he wanted on the ground, but he also needed to see something from his new starting quarterback. Honestly, after those first two scoring drives, we didn’t see much of anything else from the passing game.
Milton misfired on a couple of deep shots, barely missing a wide open Cedric Tillman. He sailed both attempts long. Milton also seemed a touch slow getting through his reads all night long, getting himself into trouble in the pocket — which eventually led to a sack fumble.
Josh Heupel on Joe Milton's performance: There were a couple of times where I didn't like his decision-making. There's some things he'll have to clean up, but there were also some positives in there.— Ben McKee (@benmckee14) September 3, 2021
Josh Heupel on Joe Milton:— Eric Cain (@_Cainer) September 3, 2021
"There wasn't anything that was earth-shattering where we thought we needed to make a change. We believe in Joe." #Vols
He finished his night by finally hitting a deep strike, thanks to an outstanding effort in the endzone from Cedric Tillman. Milton ended the night 11-23, 140 yard and a touchdown. He started the night 9-11, then went ice cold.
It definitely should be noted that Milton was a massive part of the rushing attack tonight too. It wasn’t just scrambling, which he did plenty of, but it was designed runs. Read options, delayed draws, the staff clearly wanted to utilize his athletic ability. In total, Milton ran 14 times for 44 yards and two touchdowns. It’s also noteworthy that Hendon Hooker finished the game over Harrison Bailey, as Tennessee stuck with the run-first theme.
Both Milton and Heupel deserve a little grace here. It’s game one of a new system at a new place, it was never going to be perfect. But the long dry spell in the second quarter against a really bad opponent is concerning, especially considering the fact that Milton never found his groove again.
Tennessee is going to need a much more efficient effort next week against a good Pitt team. The staff now has a couple of extra days to digest this one and make adjustments. Let’s see if we see some growth next Saturday.