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Tennessee’s offense sputters a bit in 30-13 win against Austin Peay

Some missed throws, some drops — the offense just looked out of rhythm

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Austin Peay at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now, let me offer a prologue before we get into the meat of this piece:

This isn’t a “freak-out,” post, nor am I all that concerned about the offense’s long-term viability. If you remember, I picked us to go 8-4, so I expected regressions in critical areas that might affect the team’s overall outcome. Also, despite struggling for a couple quarters against Virginia, the Vols nearly put up 50 against them. Not all that impressive, considering the opponent finished 3-7 in Tony Elliott’s first season as head coach. A qualifier, though: UVA’s defense was a bright spot last season, finishing 46th in the NCAA in points allowed per-game (24.8).

But to ignore the six punts or turnover on downs against the Cavs and the six punts or turnover on downs against a Governor’s squad that just joined Division 1 in 2022 would be, well, imprudent.

The Vols ended up scoring two TDs in the last three quarters of the UVA game to help bolster that margin of victory, while Milton hit Ramel Keyton for a 41-yard pass in the second quarter and ended up with 201 yards on 21-30 passing.

Against Austin Peay, Joe missed some throws, and he didn’t get any help from wide outs, with their four or five drops, depending on which statistical site you’re looking at.

“A win, absolutely,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said after Saturday’s game. “Do we need to be a whole lot better? Yes, absolutely, in particular offensively. There’s some things that we control. You give credit to them, too. They played well, they played hard and they forced us into a turnover and created negative plays.”

Heupel makes a good point there at the end, because you could see a difference in the energy levels between the two teams.

AP Head Coach Scotty Walden looked like he was about to crack & chug two Miller Lights then jump in the ring to Stone Cold Stunner the nearest person, and his vitality was consistent and contagious. His team played with a vigor that I didn’t see much of on UT’s bench. Maybe I missed it.

The easy answer here is that the team was looking ahead to next week’s trip to Ben-Hill Griffin Stadium, where the Vols haven’t won since the early 2000s. But it’s not necessarily the lack of energy for UT that worries me — it’s that yesterday, they looked like a team missing its leader.

Perhaps if/ when Milton doesn’t miss on some easy throws, and his wide outs don’t ... catch ... a case of the dropsies, we’ll see the energetic, lively and jovial Milton bouncing around and hyping up his teammates again. And maybe that was his demeanor Saturday, and , again, I missed it. Totally possible, if not likely.

Overall, Milton’s been fine on the field: 42-63 (67-ish percent), four TDs and no turnovers. That’s good enough for the first two games.

But failing to score more than 10 points in a quarter, like the Vols did against AP, certainly isn’t going to cut it through the SEC schedule. But, even with five drops from his WRs, Milton still missed just nine balls, so take out those drops and you’ve got a 26-30 game, and we’re likely having a different conversation today.

“Listen, the job for us is to be the best football team on the field every Saturday,” Heupel said in the postgame interview Saturday. “You walk off the field and you see the scoreboard and you either accomplished that goal or you didn’t. We’ve got to come back in, we’ve got to learn, reset and grow from it, certainly, as we head into conference play. We’re going to need to be better than we were tonight. Are we capable of doing those things? Yeah, absolutely. They’re really small things. Some of the things at wideout, we’ve seen those guys operate, function and handle all that at a really high level. Urgency in how we come back tomorrow afternoon and on Monday is absolutely critical for us.”

The Vols punted a total of 20 times last season, and though two games this year, they’re nearly halfway to that number at nine.

Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy led the WRs in snaps, with 69 and 66, respectively. It was Squirrel White who led the team in plays in the slot position with 52, but interestingly enough, transfer tight end McCallan Castles was second on the team with 33 snaps as the team’s third wide receiver. Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton, Jr., played just 19 snaps — all in the slot, whereas White and Castles lined up outside and on the line (kinda curious, no?) — and caught two of his six targets for 12 yards, per PFF.

PFF seems to be the only site who has Thornton logged with any receptions, as ESPN and UT Sports have him with zero catches against the Govs. Either way, though two games, he’s not had the impact that I think fans expected. It’s early, and there’s plenty of season left, but the coaches have to find a way to get him involved. He’s too physically gifted to put up stat lines like the one against UVA: two catches, 12 yards.

Tennessee essentially stopped taking shots downfield during the game, and after, Heupel was asked if the tactic was a result of Milton’s performance or Austin Peay’s defensive game plan:

“I mean, there’s a combination,” Heupel said. “There’s times where we were pushing it down the field, we were a little bit off, in particular early in the football game. There’s some things situationally where we were off – Joe, wide receiver, combination of both things – where we’re just not in sync in some critical situations. Third down, we’ve got to be better than we were tonight. You’ve got to be able to sustain drives and you’ve got to score points in the red zone. Turnovers, not getting a fourth down – there’s a lot of things – the penalties there that took out of those field zones, so there’s a lot of things that we can control and do at a higher level.”

The Vols finished just 3-12 on third downs and had eight penalties for 80 yards — neither of which helped.

UT goes to Gainesville this weekend, where the Gators are 1-1 after bouncing back from the Utah loss with a 49-7 win against McNeese State. Let’s see if Heupel and Halzle can get these passing game kinks ironed out in time to beat UF, at UF for the first time in 20 years.