Though Tennessee threw for just 100 yards on Joe Milton’s 11-22 game with one touchdown and one interception, the Vols’ defense seemingly spent more time in A&M’s backfield than Aggie QB Max Johnson. The pressure forced two fourth-quarter interceptions, a combined 11 QB hurries, two sacks, five tackles-for-loss and four passes broken up as UT held onto the 20-13 win.
The final interception of the game came from Kamal Hadden when the Aggies were attempting to drive down the field for a game-winning touchdown as the clock was ticking down to zero.
I haven’t done a “Three Things,” piece on this site in a long, long time — so I thought I’d bust it out for this recap.
The Throw Game Nearly Made This a Throw-Away Game
Since 2021, Tennessee is 11-3 when its scores two touchdowns in the first quarter. That win-loss record gets even more lopsided when one includes the second quarter, but I didn’t count the second quarters to get this record.
Regardless, Tennessee definitely did not start fast, and it still came away with the victory.
It’s time for anybody who was expecting Joe Milton to come in and be a high-quality replacement for Hendon Hooker to give up on that idea. This team, and this offense, is entirely different from the offense we’ve seen the past two seasons.
When Milton makes an accurate throw, the ball seems to get dropped, or there’s a pass interference no call.
The Vols scored just seven points in the first quarter and passed for 29 yards. Things didn’t get better in the second quarter, when Milton went 1-1 for nine yards in nearly 7.5 minutes of time of possession. Those kinds of numbers just absolutely won’t get it done if Tennessee wants to hang onto its aspirations of being in the race for the SEC Championship.
Regardless of the slow and ugly start with the ball in the air, the Vols dominated A&M’s defense on the ground. UT’s trio of backs ran for a combined 232 yards on 49 carries against an Aggie defense that’s allowed 84-yards per-game rushing prior to tonight. Jaylen Wright led the way with 19 carries for 136 yards for a 7.8 yards-per-carry average. Dylan Sampson and Jabari Small 20 carries for 76 yards.
Milton didn’t lose the game for Tennessee, which is important moving forward considering the change in the way this offense ticks. In the first quarter, after three-straight incomplete passes in the red zone, Milton hit tight end Jacob Warren for a seven-yard TD pass on the near sideline pylon to tie the game at 7-7.
Chas Nimrod led the team with four catches for 31 yards, and Squirrel White caught three passes for 29 yards on six targets.
I don’t know what the staff’s plan is for the rest of the year, but the passing game has to get something going. Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton was dressed and ready to play, but I don’t think he saw the field. Something’s gotta give, somewhere.
Special Teams Make Special Games
Pre-Season All-American specialist return man Dee Williams finally got somebody to kick to him, and he made A&M pay with a 39-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave the Vols a four-point lead.
Dee Williams with some of the biggest plays of the Vols' win.— Karthik Venkataraman (@KarthikV_) October 14, 2023
A punt downed at the one, then an electric punt return for a touchdown.
Cristian Conyer celebrating during during the Dee TD was great too. pic.twitter.com/Ps8TQg03yK
The best part about this whole scenario is that it was Williams who downed the Jackson Ross 49-yard punt inside the one-yard line that put the Aggies in such a precarious position in the first place. Ross had three punts for 120 combined yards with two of the three kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. Charles Campbell missed a 51-yarder in the second quarter, but that’s the only play resembling a blemish by Mike Ekeler’s special team’s unit.
Of course, this was after the defense forced a three-and-out. In the second half, the Vols’ defense held A&M to just 3-10 on third down chances. And that segues nicely into Thing No. 3.
Tennessee’s Defense was Downright Disrespectful
I mentioned some of the stats earlier, but they don’t really do justice to how dominating the Vols’ front seven was against the Aggies’ offensive line. Aaron Beasley and Elijah Herring led the team, with each having eight tackles.. Herring’s development has made the loss of BYU transfer Keenan Pili much more manageable.
James Pearce looks like a track star playing off the edge, while Bryson Eason and Omari Thomas just busted through the middle of Texas A&M’s line multiple times like fridges on wheels.
Pearce is going to give opposing teams’ tackles nightmares if he continues on his track of progression — he led the team with five QB hurries (Roman Harrison was the only other Vol with more than one hurry, and he had just two), he tied with Tyler Baron with two tackles for loss and he added six total tackles.
Baron’s play so far this season is what we’ve been expecting from him since he arrived, but guys develop at different paces, and Baron knows this season is his last chance to impress NFL scouts. If the UTSports website’s been updated already, then after tonight’s game, he’s third on the team with 5.5 TFLs for minus 26 yards, and he’s second in sacks with five for another negative 26 yards.
The pressure that this defense front puts on opposing teams leads to interceptions, like Gabe Jeudy-Lally’s pick with just under four minutes to play in the game and Kamal Hadden’s game-sealing interception on the final drive.
The Vols are now 5-1 and heading into the normal, murderer's row that comes with this time of year. They’ve got Alabama next week, in Tuscaloosa, and then Kentucky in Lexington. I’m sure Bama’s out for revenge, but we’ll worry about that later. Tonight, we enjoy the win, the atmosphere and getting a dub while honoring Eric Berry’s induction to the College Football Hall of Fame.