Four Quick Takeaways: Tennessee Dominates Virginia In Series Opener

Four Quick Takeaways: Tennessee Dominates Virginia In Series Opener

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee made easy work of Virginia in its 2023 season opener Saturday afternoon, knocking off the Cavaliers 49-13 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

The Vols’ offense was up-and-down in the blowout win but their defense was stout in a stifling effort.

Here’s four quick takeaways on Tennessee’s season opening win over Virginia.

A Stagnant First Half Stretch For Tennessee’s Offense

Things started well for Tennessee’s offense. The Vols went 62 yards in eight plays capped off by a nine yard Dylan Sampson touchdown reception on fourth down.

But from that point on, Tennessee entered a stagnant four drive stretch without scoring.

Ramel Keyton dropped what would have been an 80-yard touchdown on the third drive leading to a three-and-out.

They went four-and-out on their second drive, getting stuffed on a fourth-and-one run. Tennessee moved into field goal range on its fourth drive before a procedure penalty and third down sack completely knocked the Vols out of field goal range.

Than on the next drive Milton threw three straight incompletions to open receivers. A Virginia defensive line tipped the first pass, Milton was high on a pass to the sideline to Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton couldn’t haul in a high pass over the middle on third down.

Tennessee faced similar issues on its ensuing drive when a false start and holding pushed them back to first-and-25. But the Vols overcame this time when Milton found Keyton for 41 yards and Tennessee went 90 yards in 13 plays for its second touchdown drive of the game.

It was a nice answer to a poor stretch from Tennessee’s offense.

Dominant Defense

It’s hard to envision a much better start to the season for Tennessee’s defense. Virginia is breaking in a young offensive line with four new starters and it showed.

The Vols’ defensive line overwhelmed and dominated Virginia’s front and made it nearly impossible for the Cavs to have any offensive success.

Virginia totaled just 202 total yards (compared to Tennessee’s 492 yards). The Cavaliers ran for just 96 yards as Tennessee’s front seven bottled up the run game. Those low numbers also came in large part due to Tennessee recording four sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

The Vols had constant pass rushing success particularly on third down when they pinned their ears back and aggressively rushed Tony Muskett. Sophomore James Pearce Jr. was particularly impressive. After earning a very limited role as a freshman, Pearce opened his second collegiate season with two sacks.

The Cavaliers totaled only 106 passing yards and went five-of-18 on third downs, struggling to extend drives.

Virginia finally had some offensive success with a third quarter touchdown drive. However, it was still a dominant performance from the Vols’ defense.

Virginia Has No Answers For Vols’ Running Game

It was an average season debut for Joe Milton III and Tennessee’s passing game. It wasn’t overly sharp or effective but it also wasn’t anything to hit the panic button over.

But Josh Heupel didn’t ask a ton out of Milton’s right arm because he didn’t need too. Tennessee’s rushing attack dominated the day and Virginia had little to no answers for it.

It all started with junior running back Jaylen Wright who immediately set the tone with runs of six, 21 and 14 yards on the first drive of the game. Wright was unstoppable without getting an overwhelming number of carries. The potential breakout star totaled 115 rushing yards on 12 carries for 9.6 yards per carry.

Senior Jabari Small was solid as usual, totaling 67 yards on 13 carries. And Dylan Sampson was the touchdown man. He had 14 total touches and scored four touchdowns including the receiving touchdown to open the game.

Tennessee totaled 287 yards and five rushing touchdowns on 52 carries. All three Tennessee running backs and Milton had success running. The Vols finished the opener averaging an explosive 5.5 yards per carry.

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A Poor Performance From Tennessee’s Special Teams

With a new starting kicker and punter, Tennessee’s special teams was largely unknown entering the season. The debut for Charles Campbell was solid— making all seven extra point attempts

But it was a poor debut for punter Jackson Ross. He shanked two of his first three punts for 17 and 27 yards respectively. The Aussie is pretty entrenched as Tennessee’s starting punter but has work to do from the opener on.

Josh Turbyville is also in his first season as Tennessee’s kick off specialist and booted two kick offs out of bounds.

Than there was Dee Williams. The cornerback was solid in the return game both on kick offs (first time) and punts (returning starter). But one of those nice returns ended with a fumble that gave Virginia the ball back.

So nothing truly disastrous happened for Tennessee’s special teams but they were far from their best. Safe to say special teams coach Mike Ekeler’s chili will be hot this week as the Vols look to fix their season opening mistakes.

Author: Ethan Moore