Tennessee, despite all of the passing game struggles, sits at 5-1 overall — still with every chance to make some real noise down the stretch. It’s not how anyone thought it would go, but it’s working, at least for now.
The Volunteers are winning with a truly elite rushing attack, complete with an aggressive defense that features one of the best defensive fronts in the country. The only problem? The complete lack of a downfield passing attack.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Joe Milton we saw during the Orange Bowl hasn’t shown up in 2023. Off-target deep shots and questionable decisions have plagued Josh Heupel’s offense so far this season, forcing him to adjust the gameplan quite a bit. To be totally fair, the receivers haven’t done too much to help, either.
Heupel is rolling with a short passing game, almost an extension of the run game. The shot plays are still there, but Milton is lacking the accuracy, and frankly the confidence, to hit them. Cap that off with some bad decisions that have led to turnovers, and you have a real problem in the throw game.
“The decision in the red zone, just can’t make that one,” Heupel said of Milton’s late pick against Texas A&M. “That was a critical error by him, sometimes that happens. At quarterback, we don’t want that to happen anymore.”
Tennessee is also dealing with the loss of Bru McCoy, along with a lingering hamstring issue for Dont’e Thornton. That has pushed some new faces up the depth chart, which is obviously not helping the chemistry.
“A little bit of what’s going on on the backend is some just with the wide receivers and some scheme,” Heupel continued. “All of us being on the same page. There’s some efficiency there that’s really good, and, obviously, not consistent enough from all of us across the board, and from me, to Joe, to the wideouts, to the tight ends, to the offensive line, it’s all got to be a piece of it.”
Still, the play of Milton has left a lot to be desired, especially after the flashes we saw in 2022 in limited time. Unfortunately, this just seems to be what Joe is at this point. It’s year six at the college level, and if he hasn’t been able to string good performances together by now, it’s probably not going to happen. That’s an ugly truth that most of us have seemed to accept.
“There’s a few things fundamentally that (Joe Milton III) did that caused a couple of passes to be a little bit off target,” Heupel said of Milton’s performance against Texas A&M. “There were a couple of catches that we have to make. End of the day, we have to continue to grow that way. Do have great belief in our guys and where we can get to.
“We’ve had guys open and we haven’t hit them, communication has been off at times. We just have to be a little bit better. It wasn’t pretty on Saturday, I’ll be the first to admit that, but it’s not that far off either. We have to do ordinary things at a really high level.”
Milton finished the day 11-22 for just 100 yards passing.
What’s the solution? The answer isn’t simply making the switch to five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava heading into Tuscaloosa. But maybe that becomes an option down the road.
For Tennessee, at least through this tough stretch, the answer seems to be limited to simply hoping Milton figures things out. This rushing attack is good enough, this defense is good enough — if you can get Milton to simply not lose the game for you, the Volunteers may be okay.
However, going into the back-half of the schedule with at Alabama and Georgia still looming, you get the sense Milton is going to have to do a little more than just manage the game.
“I think when you don’t play your best football, you have to be able to wipe it clean,” Heupel said. “When you play your best football, you have to be able to wipe it clean too. At the end of the day, have a routine that takes you to kickoff so that you are putting yourself in the consistent position to go play your best. Joe has been really mature in how he has prepared. There are some things fundamentally that he’s done really well that he didn’t do in the last one. We have to be a little bit better in the passing game. That’s him, that’s the wideouts, it’s everybody.”
Those fundamentals don’t have much time to be corrected. At Alabama, at Kentucky, UConn, at Missouri, Georgia and Vanderbilt is how Tennessee will close the year. Can the defense and run game continue to prop up the Volunteers? There’s probably a limit to that formula, and Tennessee will likely put that thought to the test again on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.