Photo by Jackson McCarter/Rocky Top Insider
Tennessee football looked thoroughly unimpressive in its home opener against Austin Peay but its defense dominated and the Vols earned a 30-13 victory.
Joe Milton III struggled and Tennessee’s receivers did him no favors as Tim Banks’ defense proved crucial to the Vols defeating their instate foe.
Here’s four quick takeaways on Tennessee’s victory.
Abysmal First Half Performance From Tennessee
Southern Illinois fared significantly better in the first half last week against Austin Peay than the Vols did Saturday. And that’s about the nicest thing to say about Tennessee’s first half performance against their instate FCS foe.
The Vols finally took their first lead of the game with 15 seconds left in the half when Milton scored on a six-yard third down quarterback draw.
Austin Peay’s offensive coaches did a fantastic job scheming up plays that didn’t make the Governors’ offensive line hold up for long. A number of them worked well and Tennessee’s defense wasn’t perfect in the first half but they overall performed at the level you’d expect.
It was Tennessee’s offense that made the first half so poor for the Vols. Josh Heupel’s offense finally found some rhythm on its final two drives of the first half when it largely leaned on receiver screens and its running game to move the football.
Tennessee’s passing game was horrific with blame equaling falling on Joe Milton and his receiver’s shoulders. We’ll dig into the issues further later on in this story but Milton started just one-of-eight with his lone completion being on a screen pass.
Tennessee Takes Control With Double Dip
Tennessee and Austin Peay were tied when the Vols took over with 2:16 to play in the first half. The Vols hadn’t led all game and hadn’t found the end zone yet either.
Then Tennessee did what it did so often a season ago. The Vols doubled up Austin Peay with a touchdown before and after halftime with the Governors running just one play in between.
Milton led a 11 play, 67 yard touchdown drive in just over two minutes before the half. The Vols moved the ball with their run game and screen passes before Milton scored Tennessee’s first touchdown on a quarterback draw on third-and-goal at the six yard line.
Tennessee received the opening kick of the second half and moved right down the field with Jaylen Wright runs of 26 and 31 yards. Milton finally completed his first pass beyond the line of scrimmage on the drive’s fifth play when he found Ramel Keyton for a five-yard touchdown on a slant route.
The Vols still had issues and were far from perfect in the second half, but the double dip around halftime put Tennessee in control and essentially decided the game’s outcome.
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Tennessee’s Passing Game Lays An Egg
Tennessee’s biggest offensive issues lied with its passing offense where Joe Milton and his receivers gained no rhythm throughout the game.
Milton’s one-and-eight start was a mix of passing inaccuracy and bad drops from Tennessee’s receivers. A number of the drops were throws slightly behind pass catchers but still should have been caught. Both Bru McCoy and tight end McCallan Castles dropped passes like that.
Milton’s best play of the game came in the second quarter when he alluded pressure and threw a dot to Dont’e Thornton on the sideline but the Oregon transfer dropped it.
So Tennessee’s receivers did Milton no favors in the first half but the sixth-year quarterback struggled himself. He was inaccurate on a number of passes and missed a couple open receivers too.
While the screen passes made Milton’s numbers much better it wasn’t a completely fair representation of his performance. The veteran signal caller didn’t complete one pass that wasn’t a screen pass or a behind the line of scrimmage RPO in the first half.
Tennessee’s passing offense had a little more success in the second half but not much. Milton and the Vols’ receivers poor performance makes their ability and play a massive question heading into next week’s SEC opener at Florida.
Vols’ Defensive Line Dominates
While Tennessee’s offense didn’t take care of business the way you’d expect against an FCS foe, its defense largely did just that though two late touchdowns made it look less impressive.
The Vols’ defensive line dominated Austin Peay the same way they dominated Virginia a week ago. The Governors did a good job of scheming quick passes that didn’t allow Tennessee’s pass rush to take control as much as it could but it was hard to scheme around those deficiencies.
Tennessee totaled seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss in the victory. In total, Austin Peay had 59 yards worth of negative plays on tackles for loss and sacks.
Aaron Beasley was the star of the game, totaling nine tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks but a number of Vols were effective in the front seven of the defense. Sophomore edge rushers Josh Josephs and James Pearce Jr. each recorded a sack in the win.