MIAMI – Tennessee didn’t have Jeremy Banks, but it had Tim Banks. And Aaron Beasley. And Byron Young. And motivation.
A defense that struggled mightily in a loss to South Carolina late in the season, was terrific against Clemson, holding the Tigers out of the end zone for three quarters and scoring a dominating 31-14 Orange Bowl victory Friday night over the ACC Champions.
Tennessee won 11 games for the first time since 2001 and for only the ninth time in school history – just two years removed from a disastrous 3-7 season that saw Jeremy Pruitt fired and the school hit with 18 major NCAA recruiting violations.
Some blamed the South Carolina loss on the absence of linebacker Jeremy Banks, a team leader who was suspended for the game.
Banks opted out of the Orange Bowl. He wasn’t missed.
Banks’ absence against the Gamecocks was exaggerating by many, especially when you consider the way the defense played against Clemson.
The Tigers gained 484 yards and penetrated into UT territory 10 times, but missed three field goals, botched a fake field goal, threw an interception and failed to convert twice on fourth down inside UT territory.
The architect of UT’s defensive performance was defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who did an outstanding job this season, with minimal exceptions (South Carolina being one of them).
Hard to imagine that Clemson ran 101 plays to Tennessee’s 66, yet got whipped soundly.
Vols quarterback Joe Milton, replacing the popular and productive Hendon Hooker (torn ACL), was named the Orange Bowl MVP after completing 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He had scoring strikes to Bru McCoy of 16 yards, Squirrel White of 14 yards and Ramel Keyton of 46 yards.
While Milton was named the MVP, it could easily have gone to White, the diminutive true freshmen who was trying to fill the shoes of Biletnikoff winner Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, both of whom opted out of the game.
White, generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, caught nine passes for 108 yards and one score. He was the target of four of Milton’s first five throws.
The MVP also could have gone to linebacker Beasley, who had four tackles for loss and two sacks in the first half alone. He finished with 12 stops and harassed Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik into several errant throws.
Klubnik, the talented freshman who had 279 yards and three touchdowns in the ACC championship game win over North Carolina, was 30 of 54 for 320 yards, but he threw two interceptions and was ineffective when the Tigers got inside the UT 40-yard line. He also ran 20 times (he had 22 runs all season) for 51 yards. He had 74 run and pass plays – eight more than Tennessee.
Clemson had drives that ended at the UT 27, 35, 32, 22, 15, 43, 13, 23, 31 and 15.
The Tigers finally scored a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the game on a 4-yard scramble by Klubnik.
But Tennessee responded with a 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Milton’s 46-yarder to Keyton.
Then the defense made two stops to seal the deal.
Tennessee senior tight end Jacob Warren said growing up, he always dreamed about playing against Clemson. To beat the Tigers in the Orange Bowl was a special treat.
Young, who said before the game he was committed to playing so he could cap an outstanding season, said after the win he came close to opting out to focus on the NFL draft.
What was the deciding factor?
“I prayed about it,’’ he said.
And he didn’t want to abandon his teammates in a New Year’s Six bowl game and he didn’t want to abandon the program that gave him a chance two years ago after he toiled as a store manager for Doller General and attended Georgia Military College, which didn’t play a game in 2020 due to Covid.
Hooker, who had surgery Dec. 13, joined his teammates during practice, helping any way he could. He gave advice to Milton, attended practices, sat in meetings.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team,’’ said Hooker, who committed to Tennessee in January 2021 just after a three-win season and just before Pruitt was fired.
He sat in a locker-room chair, his leg extended and supported by a knee brace, and bragged about his teammates.
If not for Hooker, Tennessee wouldn’t have won 11 games this year.
If not for Milton, Tennessee might not have won the Orange Bowl.
If not for the defense, the Vols might had ended the season on a sour note.
But that wasn’t the case.
The architect of Tennessee’s remarkable turnaround was Josh Heupel, who won the national championship in 2000 as Oklahoma’s quarterback in this very same Orange Bowl.
Asked about his future plans at a postgame presser, Heupel frowned.
“Don’t I get to enjoy this victory?’’ he asked
A victory over an iconic program.
A victory than landed UT an 11th win.
And a victory that might set the tone for even better things to come.
As Heupel himself said, Tennessee’s future is “freaky bright.’’