NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers picked up right where they left off last football season.
By routing an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.
In their first game since a resounding 31-14 upset of Clemson in last December’s Orange Bowl, the No. 12 Vols pummelled Virginia 49-13 before 69,507 football-starved fans inside Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. The attendance was the largest for an athletic competition in the stadium’s history, which dates to 1999.
Tennessee showed plenty of offensive flare in racking up 499 yards, but the Vols were even more impressive defensively, limiting the Cavaliers to just 201 yards and keeping them out of the end zone until three minutes remained in the third quarter of a 35-3 game. Vols defenders racked up 11 tackles for loss, which included four sacks and certainly factored into Virginia’s 95-yard rushing total.
“We’re going to rely on our D-line a lot this year,” fifth-year senior safety Wesley Walker said. “They’re a really talented group, and they’re a really deep group. When they’re going, they make it easier for the back end.
“We let them know that they’re driving the bus.”
Including the 56-0 trampling of Vanderbilt in last November’s regular-season finale, Tennessee has allowed a combined 27 points in its past three games. That’s the lowest such three-game total for the Vols since the 2002 season.
The defensive effort was appreciated even more Saturday given that Virginia started three first-half drives in Tennessee territory due to the Vols losing the ball on downs, producing a poor punt and fumbling away a punt return.
“There is a level of maturity your defense has to have to be in as many of those situations come up where the ball is on the wrong side of the field and to have no panic and no pointing of the finger,” Vols third-year coach Josh Heupel said. “I loved that maturity from our staff and from those guys on that side of the football. I thought our front four did an unbelievable job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and I thought we tackled well for an opener.
“We did a really good job on third downs, and our secondary was rock solid early in the game.”
Vols football vs. Virginia on Sept. 2, 2023
As for the offense, sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III completed 21 of 30 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for two scores. Junior running back Jaylen Wright had 12 carries for 115 yards and a robust 9.6 yards per carry, and sophomore running back Dylan Sampson tallied three short rushing touchdowns and a 9-yard receiving score.
“That’s a good way to start if you’re a running back,” Heupel said of Sampson’s 24-point day.
Wright had Tennessee’s first four touches this season, three via runs and one via a reception, and produced gains of 7, 6, 21 and 14 yards to quickly get the Vols into the red zone. The next three plays only moved the possession to Virginia’s 9, but Tennessee went for it on fourth-and-5, which resulted in a touchdown pass from Milton to Sampson and a 7-0 lead less than three minutes in.
The Vols were stuffed on fourth-and-1 at their own 29-yard line to end their second possession, but they avoided giving up any points when Virginia’s Will Bettridge pushed a 28-yard field-goal try wide right.
Tennessee’s third drive opened with Milton throwing a beautiful deep pass to a wide-open Ramel Keyton, who dropped the ball, and the Vols fumbled away a punt return on the first quarter’s final play. The Vols led just 7-0 after the first 15 minutes despite outgaining the Cavaliers 110-2.
“There were just some subtleties in execution: catching the football, being more accurate with the football, being a little bit cleaner in the pocket,” Heupel said. “It’s not a major overhaul when things aren’t going well typically on the offensive side of the ball. It’s just that 11 guys have to operate as one.
“I just felt like our skill guys in general were not in the flow of the game, whether it was the heat, new surface or game one. We weren’t quite within ourselves, but as the game went on, I thought we operated better.”
A 41-yard pass from Milton to Keyton to the Virginia 32 midway through the second quarter reignited the offense, and the Vols took a 14-0 lead on a 3-yard Sampson run with 4:41 before halftime to cap a 13-play, 90-yard drive. The Cavaliers got on the board with a Bettridge 30-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining, but those 102 seconds were more than enough for the Vols to march 75 yards in nine plays and take a 21-3 lead on a 1-yard Milton sneak.
Tennessee’s 21-3 halftime advantage was accompanied by a 302-65 edge in total yards.
After forcing the Cavaliers into a quick three-and-out to open the second half, the Vols covered 77 yards in 10 plays and put the game away at 28-3 on a Milton 1-yard run around right end.
“At the end of the day, it’s a really positive win,” Heupel said. “There are a lot of things to take away from it on the positive side. At the same time, there are a lot of ways we can be a whole lot better as a program.
“We’ve got to enjoy every single one of these wins, and we’ve got to get better when we get back tomorrow.”
Virginia was playing its first game since last November, when Cavaliers players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry were killed in an on-campus shooting. The school wound up canceling the final two games against Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech, and a moment of silence was held 20 minutes before Saturday’s kickoff.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].