Photo via Tennessee Athletics
B.T. Potter trotted onto the field in Hard Rock Stadium to attempt his third field goal of the night. Potter had gotten off to a poor start, missing his first two attempts from 55 and 49 yards, respectively. Potter’s third attempt was from 42 yards out, a distance from which the super-senior could easily convert.
But Potter missed, marking the fourth straight possession Clemson had gotten into scoring range and came away empty-handed. Along with Potter’s three misses, Drew Swinney was stopped short of the sticks on a failed fake field goal attempt ending the Tigers’ first possession.
The misses were wasted opportunities for the Tigers, but more importantly for Tennessee, it showed the Vols’ defense had come to play in Miami.
Tennessee’s third-down defense in the first half was terrific, holding the Tigers to a 30-percent conversion rate (3-10) with no conversions occurring in Tennessee territory. Those third down stops in the Vols’ territory led to field goal attempts, which led to more misses and kept a zero on the scoreboard next to the orange paw print.
“Great red zone defense, situational football tonight,” Josh Heupel said after the game. “You’ve got to get points when you’re in the red zone, you need to get sevens, and defensively we found a way to tighten up when they were on the plus side of the 50, and on the field goals they didn’t make many of their attempts, and found a way to get off the field.”
Clemson didn’t score their first points until approximately five minutes were remaining in the first half, when B.T. Potter finally converted a field goal attempt – this one from the short distance of 31 yards (had it been 35, Potter would have still doinked it or missed left).
The Tigers looked poised to put three more points up at least before the end of the first half when Clemson was driving. However, a sequence of interesting time management decisions was followed up by the worst play of the game from Clemson QB Cade Klubnik. The freshman had enough time to scan the field for an open man in the end zone, but if it wasn’t there, Klubnik had to throw it away so the field goal unit could come on. Rather than throwing it away, Klubnik ran up the middle when he couldn’t find an open receiver and got tackled in bounds as time expired. A true true-freshman mistake.
Mistakes were a common theme for Klubnik against Tennessee, who didn’t have his worst stuff but certainly wasn’t his best. Klubnik finished 30-54 for 320 yards and two INT in his first start. Tennessee’s pass rush flustered Klubnik all game, especially Aaron Beasley and Byron Young.
Beasley and Young were the stories of UT’s defense in Miami, with Beasley racking up a pair of sacks and a career-high four TFLs. Young was not far behind, tallying two sacks of his own and three total tackles. Beasley frequently zoomed into the Clemson backfield in the first half, recording three of his TFLs.
Beasley spoke after the game about how Tennessee’s defense was able to flip a switch when Clemson got into scoring range, noting their primary focus was pretty simple.
“We just play better when the pressure is on,” Beasley said. “When they are about to score, we don’t want them to score.”
The Franklin, Georgia, native was instrumental in disrupting Klubnik and getting the Clemson passing game out of rhythm, causing the Tigers to shift toward a more run-heavy unit in the second half despite trailing on the scoreboard.
In the first half, Klubnik attempted 29 passes with the game in balance for the entire 30 minutes. With the game still in balance in the third quarter, he attempted just six. Clemson’s rushing offense, on the other hand, was called on 16 times in the 15-minute quarter.
More From RTI: Orange Bowl Win A Perfect End To 2022, Shows What 2023 Vols Can Be
As Klubnik and Clemson’s offense struggled to finish drives and find any explosiveness, Tennessee’s offense found ways to penetrate the Tigers’ defense. And on Friday night, Tennessee’s offense ran through Joe Milton III.
In his second start of the season and fourth as a Vol, the Florida native put together his best performance as a Vol to date.
The former Michigan Wolverine threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns on 19-28 passing, delivering on every necessary front for Tennessee to achieve the victory.
Milton is a player that brings a clear strong suit to the table in his arm strength and ability to throw the long ball, but Tennessee’s new QB1 was beating Clemson in more ways than one through the air.
In addition to throwing lasers and bombs, Milton showcased the ability to put touch on his passes, too, especially on his touchdown pass to Ramel Keyton about halfway through the fourth quarter.
Milton had a prime opportunity to show Vol Nation and the College Football World what he can do as a starter. The 6’5″ gunslinger not only showed he has improved, but Milton’s play made a statement that he can be the guy for the Volunteers.
“Feels great,” Milton said after the game. “Pretty much been talking about [this opportunity] the whole month. It was a statement game for Tennessee and a statement game for me coming back home.”
In a game where quarterback play was going to be paramount, Milton rose to the occasion. In a game where Tennessee’s defense would need to keep their opponent under the 30-point threshold, Tim Banks’ unit rose to the occasion, allowing just one touchdown.
Milton’s career day and the Vols’ bend but don’t break defense allowed Tennessee to achieve their 11th win of the season in the Orange Bowl. A year that saw significant ups and downs for Tennessee ended in victory in Miami.