On a rainy, cold night in Nashville, Joe Milton III got the nod as Hendon Hooker remains sidelined with a torn ACL. It was his first start in 441 days.
Quite a big jump, going from a Heisman candidate in Hooker to “Bazooka Joe.” Milton finished 11-of-21 with 147 yards and one touchdown.
“I thought he handled the game really well,” head coach Josh Heupel said of Milton’s performance.
Not bad for a rainy night, but certainly not a Hooker-esque stat line.
Milton flashed that arm talent on the first drive of the game and temporarily calmed some accuracy worries.
The famous Hooker-to-Hyatt combination became the Milton-to-Hyatt hookup when Milton threw a 61-yard pass to set Tennessee up on Vandy’s three. It was the type of high-velocity pass that is always a possibility when Milton is in the game. There’s a reason that he has the reputation as one of the most athletically gifted quarterbacks in the nation with a cannon for a passing arm.
Jabari Small punched it in the next play… and it wouldn’t be his last.
That accurate deep ball – in the rain nonetheless – is not something Tennessee fans have become used to with Milton.
Remember, Milton was benched mainly for his deep ball accuracy following an injury a season ago. Almost nothing changed on Saturday.
“You kind of just flush it and get ready for the next play,” Milton said about overthrows. “That’s the point of this offense. You can say ‘It’s excitement.”
Milton didn’t seem any better from a season ago with his overthrows. Yes, even Hooker overthrew some deep balls. Every quarterback overthrows deep balls, but Milton’s tend to be egregious.
Milton doesn’t seem to have a second gear – or a changeup, as the SEC Network commentators put it. He only has one speed, fast.
Milton overthrew Hyatt later in the game. So, Tennessee ran the same play again with Squirrel White – possibly Tennessee’s fastest receiver – as the designated receiver. Milton was probably going to overthrow him, but we will never know as he was tackled and Vanderbilt was flagged for pass interference.
Milton really flashed his arm talent at the end of the third when he threw a ball about 65 yards in the air. Despite the pretty throw, Milton managed to overthrow the speedy White, with no pass interference this time.
To give Milton credit, he did make in-game adjustments. He threw a ball to Ramel Keyton that wasn’t the rocket he usually throws. He may have even underthrew Keyton.
Keyton dropped the pass, so it won’t show up in the stat sheet.
Deep balls weren’t the only problem for Milton. He missed a wide-open Princeton Fant over the middle of the field. The missed throw didn’t matter, Jaylen Wright punched it in for a touchdown – one of six touchdowns on the ground.
Now to the run game, Milton could’ve overthrown everyone on Saturday night and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. The Volunteers ran all over the Commodores.
Coming into Saturday, Vanderbilt’s defense gave up 4.61 yards per attempt. The Commodores had earned respect on the defensive side of the ball for being very disciplined and form tacklers.
Tennessee averaged 11.7 yards per attempt.
On Saturday, when the running game was obviously going to be important in the rain, Vanderbilt’s defense did nothing to slow the Volunteers.
Tennessee finished with 362 rushing yards and only held the ball for 16:15 – absolute dominance in the trenches from the Volunteers. The offensive line lived up to the hype, and the Joe Moore award nomination.
“I thought our offensive line took over the football game in the second half,” Heupel said.
So, let’s go down the laundry list of backs (and a tight end) who found paydirt on Saturday.
Wright finished the night with five carries and 160 yards. He finished with two touchdowns and averaged 32 yards a carry. Efficiency.
“I saw the line work up their blocks, I saw them really sustain,” Wright said. “Then when I saw the hole I just hit it.”
Dylan Sampson 131 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. He averaged 10.9 yards a carry.
Jabari Small rushed for 79 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. He averaged 7.2 yards a carry.
And the tight end, Fant, finished with two carries for one yard and a touchdown.
Down three offensive linemen due to injury, coming off a brutal loss to South Carolina, and in the rain, Tennessee scored six touchdowns on the ground.
“We knew it was going to be a rainy day, so you know what that means,” Wright said. “Just pound the rock. That’s what we did today. I think we did that very well today.”
Milton’s overthrows are an issue, yes, but they didn’t make a difference on Saturday in Nashville.