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Tennessee smokes Clemson to win the Orange Bowl, 31-14

A fun night!

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night in Miami, Tennessee played in its biggest bowl game in over 20 years. The No. 6 Volunteers took on the ACC Champion Clemson Tigers — without several key players. No Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt or Jeremy Banks created quite the challenge for Josh Heupel, playing against a stout Clemson defense.

However, Tennessee came out ready to play.

Clemson appeared ready to take the early lead in this one, but Dabo Swinney opted for a fake field goal instead. Tennessee stuffed the rushing attempt to keep us at a 0-0 game.

Joe Milton then led Tennessee down the field to take the lead instead. A perfect throw to Bru McCoy had the Volunteers up 7-0 early.

It was a 11 play, 75 yard drive — a really nice early confidence builder for Milton to get in rhythm.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik struggled to start. The Tigers didn’t have much going offensively, relying almost entirely on defensive pass interference calls to move the ball down the field. The Tennessee defensive backs were tested early and often, and they were flagged several times in the first half for not playing the ball in the air.

Clemson got in scoring range six times in the first half. They came away with just three points. Three missed field goals, a failed fake and a really bad freshman mistake to end the half by Cade Klubnik was the story of the first half.

Meanwhile, Milton connected with Squirrel White to set up Tennessee’s second touchdown of the night.

Jabari Small punched it in from there.

Tennessee took a 14-3 lead into the halftime break. The Volunteers were playing bend-but-don’t-break defense, and they were greatly helped out by Clemson’s miscues. But credit the Tennessee defensive front too, which obviously kept Klubnik uncomfortable to open the game.

The first drive out of halftime produced a similar result — another field goal attempt. B.T. Potter was able to hit this one, bringing his total to 2-5 on the night. The Tennessee lead was cut down to 14-6.

The Tennessee offense needed a spark, it felt like. All of these Clemson mistakes gave Tennessee a chance to take full control, but the offense couldn’t get anything done with consistency. Milton started hot, but as the night went on, Clemson was really able to affect Joe in the pocket with pressure.

Tennessee kept leaving the door open, and you got the feeling that Clemson would eventually find their way through.

Klubnik had something cooking at the end of the third quarter, but once again it was Tennessee coming up with a stop. Swinney went for it on fourth down in Tennessee territory, but Juwan Mitchell and Aaron Beasley stopped Will Shipley just short of the sticks.

Big sequence there — you got the stop — then Jaylen Wright ripped off a 40+ yard run. Milton hurried down the field and hit Squirrel for six more.

Tennessee took a 21-6 lead into the fourth quarter.

Finally, Clemson found the endzone. It was a grinding 12-play drive that took five minutes off of the clock. Klubnik made several big throws on the drive, and finished it off himself. Will Shipley converted the two-point conversion, bringing us to a seven point contest.

The new score was 21-14 with ten minutes left to play.

Milton needed to put something together here, at least to run a little bit of clock. Tennessee moved the chains on the ground, then Milton converted a big third and long to Ramel Keyton. Milton immediately rewarded him, connecting on a bomb for the answer.

It was a devastating moment for Clemson, who had just clawed their way back into the game. The Tennessee rushing attack made that play happen, as the Vols were really starting to roll on the ground. Clemson started creeping up, and Milton made them pay deep.

Trailing 28-14, Clemson needed a really quick answer — but they didn’t find one. Klubnik was picked off on fourth down, and the Vols were in full control.

Tennessee went on to win the Orange Bowl, 31-14.

A couple of things stand out here. First and foremost, hats off to Tim Banks. His unit gave up 63 against South Carolina, then responded with a shutout and a truly great showing tonight against a really talented roster. Things could have gone south really quickly after that night in Columbia, but they didn’t. That’s a great sign moving forward.

And good for Joe Milton. Media and fans rightfully made this game a big deal for him, and he absolutely responded. We can nitpick here and there, but overall, Milton was really good tonight against a great defense. He now builds some confidence and momentum rolling into spring practice, where he’s now going to be firmly viewed as Tennessee’s projected starter for 2023.

Tennessee finishes the year with an 11-2 mark. They have a chance to rise into the top five of the final AP Poll, which is something not many of us could have imagined five months ago.

What a special season it was — ending with an Orange Bowl trophy in Miami. It didn’t end like everyone wanted it to, but momentum has been sustained in a big, big way going into the offseason.