No. 15 Tennessee defeated Akron 63-6 on Saturday, the Vols’ most points since a 63-37 win over Missouri in 2016. Here are 10 things that stood out.
1.) A fired-up fan base
A sell-out? For Akron? I was skeptical when Tennessee Athletics Director Danny White announced earlier in the week that fewer than 1,000 tickets remained for the Akron game. I was even more skeptical when the sell-out became official, figuring that the TV cameras (which might add 10 pounds to your figure but don’t lie when it comes to butts in seats) would reveal lots of empties in the upper level.
Wrong. Neyland Stadium was nearly full a half-hour before kickoff, and there were only a smattering of empty seats throughout the stadium. Which should make it clear: This Vol fan base is fired up. It was the first sell-out for a non-conference game at Neyland Stadium since 2015, and that was against a Top 10 Oklahoma team. A sell-out for Florida or Alabama? Sure, that should be expected. It won’t be surprising if the Kentucky game is a sell-out. And it wouldn’t have been surprising if this game had been against a marquee non-conference opponent — even someone like Pittsburgh. But Akron?! It’s a lower-tier MAC opponent, and Tennessee was favored to win by half a hundred. No one but no one thought this would be a competitive game.
How many other fan bases are there in America that could put 100,000 butts in seats for a game against the likes of Akron after 13 years of winning almost nothing meaningful? Not many, that’s for sure … if any.
2.) Hendon Hooker’s struggles
I wrote after the Vols’ thrashed Ball State to the tune of 59-10 that I was concerned about Hendon Hooker’s efficiency. It’s hard to tell much in what is essentially a glorified scrimmage, and the same thing was true with tonight’s game against Akron. But Hooker has struggled a bit more than one would expect through the first three games of the season. He did his best Joe Milton impression at times against Pittsburgh, and the end result was a Tennessee offense that went completely off the rails in the second half of that game. And he was also inaccurate to start Saturday’s game.
In fact, Cedric Tillman’s injury is at least partly on Hooker, who hit him high and essentially left him hung out to dry.
That’s not to say Hooker is a bad quarterback, by any stretch of the imagination. As I said after the Ball State game, it’s just that some folks called him a Heisman sleeper coming into the season, and you expect near-perfection from a Heisman candidate — even a long-shot candidate.
With that said, after the opening drive (which saw two near-interceptions thrown by Hooker and ended in a missed field goal attempt), Hooker began to settle down and played much better. He finished the game 14 of 18 for 298 yards and two touchdowns. Those are excellent numbers by any measurement.
3.) Joe Milton’s improvement
There’s never been any doubt that Joe Milton is an exceptional physical talent. It’s just that he has struggled mightily between the ears, and that’s what cost him the starting position to Hooker in the middle of last season. But I noted after the Ball State game that Milton showed remarkable improvement over what we saw from him last year, and the same thing remains true after tonight’s win over Akron.
Milton was 4 of 5 for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of which were absolutely beautifully-thrown deep balls. My son commented at one point that Tennessee has the best back-up quarterback in the country. You laugh…but then you stop to think about it. Hooker will rightfully start every game this season if he’s healthy and unless he shows remarkable regression. But if I were an NFL scout, I’d be keeping a close eye on Milton even if he doesn’t play a down in a competitive game this season. And it’s comforting as a fan to know that a competent backup is waiting in the wings if the unthinkable happens.
4.) Injuries take a toll
Beating the socks off of Akron is all well and good, but next week is Florida week. Tennessee is a better team than Florida … but the Vols have beaten the Gators exactly once in the past 17 years. They may not be an underdog for next week’s game, but they probably should be — this year and every year until they prove they can get that monkey off their backs. There have been a lot of different coaches and players through this program over the past couple of decades, but the one constant has been laying eggs against Florida.
So, with that said, Tennessee has to be at 100% for next week’s showdown with Florida (3:30 pm, CBS). Obviously the biggest concern is Tillman, who left the game in the first half and didn’t return. He is the Vols’ most explosive playmaker, and it isn’t even close. Tennessee has some talent at wide receiver, but losing Tillman would be hamstringing the passing game.
But it’s not just the potential loss of Tillman that should have Tennessee fans concerned (for the record, Vols coach Josh Heupel said at halftime that he felt like Tillman would be okay). Starting running back Jabari Small left the game with an “upper body injury” after just two carries (Heupel also said he felt like Small would be okay, for what it’s worth), and Dylan Sampson also went into the injury tent after his eighth carry of the game.
In the absence of two of the Vols’ top three backs, Jaylen Wright got plenty of action and did reasonably well, finishing close to 100 yards (96 yards on 23 carries).
5.) Bad officiating
One thing was clear: Tennessee wasn’t going to be allowed to shut out Akron. It just wasn’t going to happen. When the Zips got on the board in the third quarter with a field goal, it was because the officials gifted them 30 yards in questionable penalties and took at least one interception (potentially two) off the board.
The roughing the passer penalty against Tennessee early in that drive was flat-out awful. It was a clean play that was penalized 15 yards for no apparent reason. Then came a very questionable pass interference penalty that negated a brilliant interception. Finally, Tennessee had an interception at the goal line that was ruled to be an incompletion because the defensive back was out of bounds. But a review revealed that it was clearly a pick; he clearly had his foot down inbounds. And it wasn’t even reviewed. How in the world is that possible? It probably wasn’t reviewed because the game wasn’t competitive — but it’s a good thing the game wasn’t competitive with awful calls like that being made.
The bad officiating didn’t start on that drive, either. Bru McCoy had a touchdown taken off the board by a really bad offensive pass interference call (though Tennessee would later score a touchdown that counted on the same possession).
6.) Defensive questions
As thrilled as I was with the effort of Tennessee’s defense against Pittsburgh (and let’s make no mistake: the defense saved the day), my opinion is that the jury is still out on this unit. The Vols’ defense was terrible last year, and I noted after the Ball State game that while the defense looked much improved, there were a lot of question marks.
After the Pitt game, it was apparent that Tennessee learned its lesson from being conservative with the defensive play-calling last year. The Vols dialed up the pressure and got 16 QB pressures against the Panthers, which directly impacted the outcome of the game.
Tennessee struggled more than I would have liked to have seen in getting pressure on Akron. But the Vols improved as the game progressed, especially as fresh legs began to enter in the second half. We’ll see how many QB pressures the defense finished up with once the game’s defensive stats are released. But it wasn’t a terrible effort.
There were some concerning aspects. For one, Akron completed 32 of 45 passes for 241 yards. Skeptical Vol fans have noted that Florida’s Anthony Richardson looked like the worst QB in the SEC against Kentucky last week, but will likely look like a Heisman candidate next week … because, you know, that’s exactly what happens when you’re a Tennessee fan — especially against Florida. Now the mantra may well be, “Well if Akron can complete 32 of 45 passes…”
That’s a legitimate point. But Akron’s DJ Irons isn’t an awful quarterback. And there were a lot of things the defense did well. Akron was just 1 of 12 on third down, and was limited to 26 rushing yards on 22 carries. Those are impressive numbers for any defense, regardless of the opponent.
7.) Special teams woes
Tennessee’s special teams troubles were well-noted against Pittsburgh. Obviously the Vols were much improved in that phase of the game against Akron, but there were still concerns. Chase McGrath missed a field goal attempt, which is uncharacteristic, but perhaps a bigger concern was nearly getting a punt blocked.
Yeah, it was just “almost.” But how does a team like Akron get close to blocking a punt? That shouldn’t happen, and when you throw in that Tennessee’s already had a punt blocked this season, it’s a major red flag.
8.) Jimmy Callaway lost his mind
Jimmy Callaway is a talented receiver, but it remains to be seen whether the Vols’ backup will see action against Florida. He was ejected in the second half of tonight’s game after throwing a series of punches, including a sucker-punch to the helmeted head of an Akron defensive back.
Frankly, he should be suspended for the Florida game. That’s inexcusable behavior.
9.) Jalin Hyatt is a stud
I mean, it’s mastering the obvious to point out how talented Vols wideout Jalin Hyatt is, but it really felt like he had a breakout game against Akron. Five catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns … impressive. And he showed off his speed on both of his touchdown catches, particularly the one just before the end of the first half, which was a 57-yard score.
10.) Play of the game
Obviously it was exciting to see Ramel Keyton get a score on a 57-yard strike on the final play of the third quarter. But the play of the game may have been Tayven Jackson’s one-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
Okay, obviously that’s a bit of hyperbole, but seriously…it was great to see the freshman get action, and even better to see him score his first career touchdown. He didn’t get a chance to do anything in the win over Ball State, but tonight he completed both of his pass attempts for 28 yards before scoring on the QB keeper.
Speaking of passing, how about this combined stat line from Tennessee’s quarterbacks: 20 of 25 for 438 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Wow. And to think Hendon Hooker struggled a little bit out of the gate.
As a team, the Vols rolled up 676 yards. That was the good. The bad? Eleven penalties. Tennessee will have to clean that up ahead of next week’s showdown with Florida.