Vols surge into week two with dominant first win

Two Vols were tabbed with SEC Weekly Honors.
Tennessee mascot Smokey celebrates with fans in the second half of an NCAA college football...
Tennessee mascot Smokey celebrates with fans in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee won 49-13. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)(George Walker IV | AP)
Published: Sep. 4, 2023 at 5:49 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Tennessee football enters week two of the 2023 season 1-0 following a dominant win over Virginia in the Music City.

Previous Coverage: Tennessee secures win over Virginia, 49-13

As the Vols turn their attention to their next opponent, it’s about building off Saturday’s performance throughout the week.

Tennessee’s defense was ranked 90th nationally a season ago, and there’s no doubt that Tim Banks’ defense has taken a massive step in the off-season, which showed against UVA.

The Vols held the Cavaliers to just 201 all-purpose yards. Defenders like James Pearce had a career day in game one of the season. The sophomore totaled two sacks on the day, matching his season total from a year ago.

Transfers like Kennan Pili made a great impact, tallying two solo and two assisted tackles. The performance helped earn him the game ball.

Coach Josh Heupel said this progress began in the off-season.

“Like I said all off-season, a part of being better in pass defense is what you do up front and being able to apply pressure to the quarterback. You guys saw that on Saturday. Those guys did a great job up front of creating havoc in the backfield,” said Heupel.

Tyler Barron also had himself a day, recording two solo and one assisted tackle and two sacks for a loss of nine yards. The performance earned him SEC defensive lineman of the week.

The offense also held its own against the Cavs. They started with Joe Milton, who also earned SEC Weekly Honors. The quarterback was tabbed SEC Co-offensive Player of the Week.

Milton completed 70 percent of his passes and had 234 yards of total offense and four touchdowns against Virginia.

“Joe, I thought it through the course of the ball game, on the video too, thought his decision making, where his eyes were at was really solid throughout the course of the football game,” said Heupel.

The running back steamrolled over the Cavs through four quarters. In the Vols opening drive, Tennessee took eight plays to reach the checkerboard. A running back was involved in six of those plays.

One of the more exciting plays of the drive and afternoon was Dylan Sampson’s 9-yard touchdown reception on 4th and 5.

The Vols posted 287 rushing yards to their 212 passing. Virginia wasn’t giving up much on the deep ball, and the Vols recalibrated and pounded the ball for much of the game.

Five of their seven touchdowns came on the ground, and Sampson took care of four of those.

However, it was a performance by committee for the RB unit.

“A very selfless group,” said Heupel. “They want to be successful individually, but I don’t think there’s anyone more happy about the success of the guy on the field than the guy on the sideline during the moment of that success. And at the end of the day, that group understands that the success of that group can’t be one guy. They pull hard for each other. They’re great competitors on the practice field. They push each other in the meeting room. I think all of our position groups care about the people inside of that room.”

Jaylen Wright led all backs with 115 yards on 12 carries.

For the wide receiver unit, it took a few more attempts for the guys to get in sync with each other.

Milton completed 70 percent of his passes for 201 yards on the afternoon, only one was 20-plus yards down the field and it went 41 yards to Ramel Keyton.

That was a connection that seemed a bit shaky to start, and Heupel made clear that a few dropped passes haven’t dampened his faith in the abilities of his wide receiver core.

”Some of the details and some of the structure that we saw from the opponent we can be a bit cleaner in. All in all, performed well. There’s some things early in the football game that everybody saw that weren’t quite in sync. Not far off either. Anticipate us continuing to grow and work on those things,” said Heupel.

Receiver Bru McCoy added, “I’m pretty critical. I think there’s a lot of things to clean up. But from an effort standpoint, how we block since we run the ball a lot like I think we did pretty outstanding on that level, and there’s a lot of good things to build off of. And also you see mistakes getting made that people are like immediately you know where they messed up, where they went wrong. and they’re correcting it on the fly. So I wouldn’t be too hard on the skill position guys, but definitely a lot to build on.”

McCoy and company finished with 212 receiving yards.

The Vols return to Neyland Stadium for the first time this season on Saturday. Kick-off against Austin Peay is slated for 5:00 p.m.