HomeFootballVols 59, Ball State 10: 10 takeaways

Vols 59, Ball State 10: 10 takeaways

1.) Vols cover…and then some. Tennessee played five different quarterbacks, four tailbacks, and really stopped trying to score in the 3rd quarter…and still won the game, 59-10. That’s not a huge surprise; the Vols were 35-point favorites. But Outkick’s Jason Whitlock tweeted just before the game that the 35-point spread was “an absolute joke” and predicting “one of the great ‘upsets’ in college football.” So Whitlock is a Ball State alumnus; you can’t blame him too much for blindly rooting for his team. It’s what we all do this time of year. But, yeah, that prediction didn’t age too well.

2.) Light show doesn’t disappoint. One thing you can say about UT athletics director Danny White is that he’s a fan’s AD. When the fans speak, he generally listens. And, so, when fans clamored for the return of the V-O-L-S letters atop Neyland Stadium, he obliged. The letters may not mean much to younger fans; they hadn’t been up there since the Jumbotron made its appearance prior to the start of the 1999 season. But the simple block letters bring a great sense of nostalgia to older fans, and now they’re back … x2, on each side of the huge video board on the south end of the stadium. The new letters have a feature the old letters didn’t have, though: they light up. And during the Pride of the Southland Band’s halftime performance, they lit up for the first time. Throw in a light show that was choreographed with the Pride’s performance, and fireworks, and the lighting of the V-O-L-S letters may have been the highlight of the night.

3.) Hooker looked … okay. If this were Sept. 1, 2021 and Hendon Hooker played as he did against Ball State Thursday night, Tennessee fans would be justifiably excited about the veteran quarterback’s performance. But Hooker has been frequently mentioned as a possible dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy since his breakout season on Rocky Top in 2021, and if he’s truly going to be considered for the Heisman, obviously he has to be very impressive. His performance against Ball State, all things considered, certainly wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t incredibly impressive, either. Hooker finished 18 of 25 through the air for 222 yards and two touchdowns, and he scored two more touchdowns on the ground. So, not too shabby. And a couple of his incompletions were dropped balls. But he also had a couple of easy throws that were off-target, and he missed open receivers streaking down the seam more than once. One play that jumps out came in the second quarter, when Hooker failed to see a wide-open Jalin Hyatt for what would’ve been a certain touchdown, and instead tossed a dangerous ball to the sideline. It was complete for a big gain, but would’ve likely been a pick-six against a team like Florida or Georgia. I don’t mean to pick on Hooker; it’s just that there’s been a lot of hype surrounding him this off-season, and now it’s time for him to live up to it.

4.) Where was this Joe Milton last year? Do you know who DID look incredibly impressive against Ball State? Joe Milton III. You know, the guy UT fans loved to hate last year. Everything is based on expectations. These days, we expect Hooker to shine in Josh Heupel’s offense … and we also expect Milton, who was the starting quarterback for the first half of the 2021 season, to disappoint us. Once Hooker and the Vols starters put Ball State away Thursday, Milton got a lot of playing time, and he looked very good relative to the expectations we — as fans — have based on his play last season. He completed 8 of 9 passes for 113 yards, including the longest play of the game, which was a 53-yard scoring strike to Jimmy Holiday. He was very accurate. To be completely honest, Tennessee looked like it has two quarterbacks who can compete well against SEC teams. I’m not sure many of us saw that coming.

5.) Heupel’s offense is incredibly disciplined. Now in his second season, you expect that Josh Heupel is going to have his offense greased up pretty well. And, boy, did it ever run like a well-oiled machine. There are imperfections, obviously. The offensive line was not especially outstanding in the run game, and receivers could’ve gotten open a little more consistently. But when it comes to lining up quickly after each whistle and getting the next play off, wow. The starting offense didn’t have a single false start penalty or incorrect alignment in the first game of the season. That’s impressive. (As an aside, props to Ball State. It was an out-manned defense that grew increasingly tired as the game progressed, yet there wasn’t a single fake injury to slow down Tennessee’s up-tempo offense.) 

6.) Run game is just so-so. So Tennessee’s running backs found room to run more consistently as the game progressed and Ball State wore down. Jaylen Wright wound up averaging 6.8 yards per carry and looking like a nice second option behind Jabari Small, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry. But far too often, considering that the opponent was a lower-tier MAC team, Tennessee was stopped near the line of scrimmage or even in the backfield. It’s a run game that will have to make great strides if it is going to gain yards consistently against SEC defenses like Florida’s, Georgia’s and Alabama’s. 

7.) Receivers are a little better than average. It felt like Tennessee’s big-play threats at receiver struggled a little too much to get open consistently on deep routes against Ball State’s defense. Hooker and Milton had little trouble finding targets to throw to, but many of their completions were wide receiver screens or hitch routes. Ball State shouldn’t be able to cover SEC-level receivers as well as they sometimes seemed to tonight. Tennessee only had four passing plays of 20 yards or longer. If you’d told me going into the game that the Vols would have that few big plays against a defense like Ball State’s, given how much they tossed the ball around last season, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you.

8.) Defense looks improved. It’s hard to gauge much from Tennessee’s defensive effort in Week 1. Ball State wasn’t very good on offense last year, and they lost several of their top playmakers, including their quarterback. With that said, Tennessee’s defense was so bad in Year 1 of the Heupel era that it didn’t really have anywhere to go but up. And it appeared to trend upward during the season-opening win. Ball State didn’t score until the third quarter, and only had one touchdown all game. The defense recorded three takeaways, including an interception on the very first offensive snap, which was a flea-flicker. With that said, Ball State’s running backs seemed to squirm free for a little too much a little too often, and the Cardinals converted too many third downs early — which looked like it was going to be a carry-over of the Vols’ Achilles heel from a year ago. By the end of the night, Tennessee had limited Ball State to 5 of 14 on 3rd down (and 0 of 2 on 4th down), and to an average of just 2.7 yards per carry. Both of those are respectable numbers. Again, though, it’s hard to read too much into that. We’ll learn more about Tennessee’s defense in Week 2, when the Vols visit Pittsburgh for a matchup with a ranked opponent.

9.) Speaking of 3rd downs… I feel like I’ve picked on Tennessee’s offense, which might seem unfair, considering that Tennessee put up 569 yards and 59 points. But the Vols were gifted a short field twice — once on an interception to start the game, and later on a failed 4th down try by Ball State. One stat that jumps out: Tennessee was just 5 of 13 on 3rd down. That’s not especially impressive against a MAC defense. However, a better statistic is this one: Tennessee was 3 of 3 on 4th down tries.

10.) The revamped Neyland Stadium is looking nice. I’m not a fan of removing seats from Neyland Stadium because it simply means that tickets that are already over-priced will go up even more — meaning the common man continues to get squeezed out of attending games. But it’s inevitable that seats will be eliminated as improvements are made. There is only so much you can do to a nearly-century-old stadium, and a lot of things about Neyland Stadium simply aren’t attractive anymore. But the improvements are really helping. Maybe the single biggest improvement is the addition of the video board on the north end of the stadium. That now means there is truly not a bad seat in Neyland Stadium. The upper level south end zone seats used to be the least desirable in the house because they were directly beneath the Jumbotron and you had to turn around to watch a replay. That’s no longer the case, though the upper level south end zone seats will continue to be the least desirable because they’re the ones in the sun the longest. 

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.

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