Rexrode: Vols’ nastier defense, sloppier offense on display in romp over Virginia

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joe Milton faked it and kept it and went left and found himself in the open field with only Virginia safety Jonas Sanker blocking his path to the end zone.

Milton juked one way and then the other way, but he wasn’t shaking Sanker. And then it was almost like 6-5, 235-pound Milton, in a fraction of a second, looked at 6-1, 210-pound Sanker and said to himself: “Oh yeah.”

Milton went into Sanker’s chest, a bona fide trucking for all to see Saturday at Nissan Stadium — a crowd of 69,507, of mostly Vols backers, which was a record for a football game in this place, numbers that only Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran can eclipse. Milton didn’t get in, but he got 4 yards directly through the defender, setting up Dylan Sampson to score on the next play. He gave the Tennessee fans some of what they came to see. He gave his team a reminder.

Oh yeah. We’re bigger, stronger, faster and better than these guys. We’re supposed to beat them by a lot. We’re supposed to be one of the best teams in college football.

It ended up sounding that way in the end, a 49-13 Vols rout of the Cavaliers, who were making an emotional return to the field after the unfathomable tragedy of three UVA players shot and killed on a bus last season.

It did not always look that way for the Vols, and chalk some of that up to first-game sloppiness and some of it to the pride and effort of the Virginia players.

But it will do for an opener, for a team that shouldn’t be challenged until South Carolina comes to Knoxville in the fifth game on Sept. 30 — sorry, folks, but Florida is a bad team and there’s no excuse for anything but a road blowout of the Gators in two weeks. It also gave some visual confirmation to the expected differences between Josh Heupel’s 2023 Vols and their 2022, 11-2 predecessors.

This is going to be a better defensive team. This is going to be a worse offensive team. That’s not to say the Vols will be locking down top teams or struggling to score against anyone, and it’s also not to say one performance against an overmatched opponent tells all.

Defensive lineman James Pearce Jr. sacks Virginia’s Tony Muskett during the first half. (Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)

But you could see some steps taken, on both sides, in that burning Nashville sun Saturday. Steps forward on defense. More speed. More depth. More playmakers.

James Pearce and Tyler Baron wore out the Cavaliers offensive line, picking up two sacks apiece, and space closed rapidly on anything UVA tried to do. Tony Elliott’s team totaled 4 yards in its first seven possessions and just 201 overall despite a whole bunch of garbage time against a whole bunch of UT backups. Heupel loved how his defensive front “played on the other side of the line of scrimmage” and called his secondary play “rock solid” when the game was still competitive.

The secondary remains the question mark, to be tested with much better passing offenses in weeks to come. The line and linebackers are starting to look like a high-level SEC bunch.

“’Y’all driving the bus,’” UT safety Wesley Walker said of his message to the front. “’We’re depending on you. … This is the SEC, so the guys in the trenches have got to be dogs, have got to be ready to go.”

They were, and they will be again. Steps forward on defense. Steps backward on offense.

Milton could be a Heisman contender this season just as his close friend Hendon Hooker was last season, and he may end up higher in the next draft than Hooker was in the last one (third round to Detroit). That doesn’t mean he will attain Hooker’s level of consistent excellence as a college quarterback. He likely won’t. Few will.

And Milton’s offensive line isn’t as good, though the return of banged-up Cooper Mays at center, expected soon, should help. Some pass protection gaffes and some Milton misses and some drops, in particular Ramel Keyton’s forfeiting of an 80-yard touchdown on a Milton beauty, helped keep this a competitive game long after it should have been. Milton, the leader of this team, referred to some guys taking plays off at times, which can happen in this hyper-speed offense.

“Just some subtleties of execution,” Heupel said after getting to 19-8 with UT at the start of his third season. “Catching the football on some big plays. Being more accurate with the football. Being a little cleaner in the pocket … 11 guys have got to operate as one. I felt like just in general our skill kids were not completely in the flow of the game (early). Whether it was the heat, the new (Nissan Stadium artificial) surface, game one, we just weren’t quite within ourselves.”

Before Milton steamrolled Sanker and Sampson followed with one of his four touchdowns on the day, 25 minutes of football had been played. The Vols had dominated, 200 yards of total offense compared with those four lonely yards managed by UVA. And the score read 7-0.

That’s what happens when you fail to execute a fourth-and-1 run and leave a guy who has to be blocked unblocked. And when you fail to execute a handoff in pass protection on a twist and let Milton get sacked. And when you fumble on a punt return. And when you struggle to punt and kick off with new players in both spots.

What Heupel liked was the maturity, the “competitive composure” of his guys to leave bad plays behind and find good ones, pointing specifically to returner Dee Williams as an example. He coughed one up, but he kept playing and ended up with 125 all-purpose yards to lead the Vols.

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Dee Williams fumbled the ball on a punt return during the first half but contributed 125 all-purpose yards. (Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)

The offensive line executed better and ended up mashing the UVA front for 287 yards — 115 on just 12 carries for Jaylen Wright, the best back on the team and a player who’s going to get 1,000 yards this season. Freshman punter Jackson Ross of Melbourne, Australia, dropped the yips and finished strong.

And Milton ended up 21-for-30 for 201 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 33 yards and two more scores. He was happy with his decision-making, he said afterward, and it seemed sound other than one undetected safety in the middle of the field who nearly picked off a pass.

He was out early in the fourth quarter, making way for five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava to debut, watching as Iamaleava led a scoring drive as UT fans chanted “Nico! Nico! Nico!” Those chants were fun Saturday, shows of support for the future at the position. What the Vols don’t want is for those chants to emerge from the stands this season at Neyland Stadium in response to Milton struggles.

Iamaleava completed only one pass on his drive, for 6 yards, though he did have an escape from the pocket and slithery scramble for a first down that brought Hooker to mind. It so often comes back to Hooker. Milton is caught between the outrageous performance of Hooker and the promise and hype for Iamaleava. All he can really do is put his head down and barrel ahead with this opportunity.

Can he live up to his predecessor and make everyone forget about his successor this season? Probably not. Will he be fun to watch and have an opportunity to do great things, in his own way? Oh yeah.

(Top photo of Joe Milton running for a touchdown in the second half: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)

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