Vols regain fast-starting form to dispose of Roadrunners

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore running back Dylan Sampson rushed 11 times for a career-high 139 yards and two touchdowns Saturday as the No. 23 Volunteers throttled USTA 45-14.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s offense turned up at Neyland Stadium’s lost and found Saturday, much to the chagrin of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The No. 23 Volunteers, who couldn’t produce a consistent attack during a victory over Austin Peay and a loss at Florida the previous two weekends, erupted for 308 yards and 28 points within the game’s first 20 minutes and went on to demolish the Roadrunners of the American Athletic Conference 45-14 before a crowd of 101,915.

Vols sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III threw for 209 yards, rushed for 89 and totaled three touchdowns, while sophomore running back Dylan Sampson rushed 11 times for a career-high 139 yards and two scores.

“It was a great start to the football game,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “We played well early in both phases and on special teams. At the end of the second quarter and in the third quarter, there were some things we didn’t operate as efficiently as we need to, so we’ve got to be better than that as we continue to go, but we finished strong and I loved the effort.”

Tennessee (3-1) entered Saturday coming off a defeat for the first time since last November. Last weekend’s 29-16 loss to the Gators was equal parts execution issues and missed tackles, but the Vols abruptly pulling away at the expense of UTSA (1-3) helped create new memories after their setback in the Swamp.

“No matter what, you’ve just got to stay together,” Milton said after an 18-of-31 passing performance. “It’s about how bad you want to stay together. After all the sweat and tears you put into each summer, how bad do you want it to pay off?

Said senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas: “I think we showed a lot of maturity the way we approached this week. There wasn’t too much talking, but you could tell how much guys really cared about what we’re going to do as a team.”

Milton got an overwhelming chunk of his rushing total on the game’s first play from scrimmage, taking a zone-read keeper 81 yards for a touchdown to put Tennessee up 7-0 just 20 seconds into the mismatch. After their defense forced a three-and-out, the Vols took their second possession 62 yards in nine plays, grabbing a 14-0 lead on Sampson’s 10-yard run at the 10:03 mark of the first quarter.

“I feel like that’s been a motto since Coach Heup got here,” Milton said. “We always have that energy to start fast and get things going.”

Charles Campbell was wide left on a 52-yard field-goal attempt with 59 seconds remaining in the opening quarter for Tennessee, but the Vols reignited in the first minute of the second quarter. A 40-yard run by Jabari Small to the UTSA 18-yard line was followed by Milton finding Kaleb Webb on the ensuing play for the score.

The touchdown was a career first for Webb, a redshirt freshman from the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs.

“I feel like I’m in the facility nonstop every week to prepare myself for a moment that may come,” Webb said. “Bru (McCoy) was tired, and I had a chance to come in. That wasn’t a play we rep often, but we’ll go through it occasionally just in case we need it.

“As soon as we called it, my eyes got really big.”

Milton picked up a second aerial score, connecting with Ramel Keyton from 48 yards out to make it 28-0 at the 11:10 mark of the second quarter. Campbell made a 29-yarder with 3:21 before halftime to give the Vols a 31-0 lead at the break.

Tennessee’s lull was noticeable, however, as Milton followed a 14-of-16 start for 156 yards with a third quarter in which he was just 3-of-9 for 38 yards.

“A couple of his deep balls were a little bit off,” Heupel said, “and wide receivers needed to be in sync with some of their route patterns, too, in the middle of the field. It was combination of those things that didn’t allow us to operate as efficiently as we needed.”

Tennessee is at Neyland again next Saturday for its Southeastern Conference home opener against South Carolina.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].