Vols erupt again offensively, have already outscored last year's team

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker throws during the first half of Saturday's home game against South Carolina. Hooker threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score as the Vols beat the Gamecocks 45-20.

KNOXVILLE - Whether the Tennessee Volunteers wear all white or all black, they clearly have things rolling at the midway mark of Josh Heupel's first season at the helm.

Picking up right where they left off from last weekend's 62-24 win at Missouri, the suddenly dazzling and dynamic Vols routed South Carolina 45-20 Saturday afternoon before an announced crowd of 89,437 at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee wore black jerseys and black pants for the first time in its 125-year history, but more importantly, the Vols continued their resurgence under Heupel by racing to a 38-7 halftime lead behind the flourishing tandem of quarterback Hendon Hooker and running back Tiyon Evans.

"Obviously in the first half, I thought all three phases played really well, but there were some things in the second half that you just can't do," Heupel said. "It's a great learning lesson for our players as far as a competitive edge and just how fine a line it is and that you've got to be on the right side of that for 60 minutes."

When asked about the resounding win given that the Vols were without key defenders such as tackle Elijah Simmons, linebacker Juwan Mitchell and safety Theo Jackson, Heupel said, "There is a lot to be proud of."

The Vols (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) have amassed 1,155 total yards, 705 rushing yards and 107 points in their past two games, and they've scored more points through six games (249) than in 10 games last season (215) under former coach Jeremy Pruitt. This two-week outburst has enabled Heupel to join Phillip Fulmer as the only two coaches in program history to have teams score 30 or more points in five of their first six career games.

As for the black-on-black attire?

"I felt like a night hawk," receiver Velus Jones said after collecting six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. "Everybody was excited about it."

Evans rushed 16 times for 119 yards and a touchdown before leaving due to injury midway through the third quarter, while Hooker went the distance, completing 17 of 23 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns. Hooker became the first Tennessee quarterback to assemble five consecutive games with multiple touchdown tosses since Tyler Bray had six straight to open the 2012 season.

Hooker also rushed 20 times for 66 yards and a score.

"Hendon is continuing to grow offensively and in having complete command of what we're doing, whether that's in the run game or the pass game or understanding protections," Heupel said. "He continues to grow in taking great care of the football, and the players have responded to him in a really positive way."

Said Hooker: "We've just come out locked in from the jump. We've got great energy right now."

A 24-yard connection from Hooker to Jones to South Carolina's 42-yard line served as the big gain of Tennessee's 14-play, 66-yard opening drive that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown toss from Hooker to Jalin Hyatt. The Vols went 4-for-4 on third-down conversions during their inaugural possession.

The Vols began the game with a slew of slants or quick passes to the sideline, but three plays into their second possession, Hooker ran right before dropping back and finding JaVonta Payton behind the secondary for a 39-yard scoring strike that made it 14-0 at the 6:46 mark of the first quarter.

"It was just situational football and the way things had unfolded," Heupel said. "Where bodies were placed, we had a chance to stretch the defense there and take a shot. The protection was really good on that play, and Hendon did a great job of reading it out."

South Carolina (3-3, 0-3) had first-and-goal from the Tennessee 1 on its third possession with the running back tandem of Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd as potential touchdown options, but the Gamecocks didn't use either. On first down, receiver Dakereon Joyner entered in the wildcat formation and was stuffed for a 1-yard loss.

On second down from the 2, sophomore edge-rusher Jordan Burch lined up at running back and got the carry before pulling up and throwing into the end zone, where a crowd of Vols awaited and safety Jaylen McCollough came up with the interception. The Vols then zipped 80 yards in five plays and snagged a 21-0 lead on an 11-yard run by Hooker.

"I was a bit shocked," McCollough said when asked about South Carolina's play selection at the goal line, "but we've given up that play a bunch this season. I saw him toss the ball to what I thought was a lineman, and something in my head was like, 'That's not right.' I just dropped back, and the ball fell into my hands."

The calamitous Gamecocks fumbled the next snap on the ensuing possession away at their 24-yard line, which enabled Tennessee to turn that opportunity into a 28-0 lead on a 21-yard pass from Hooker to Jones with 12 seconds left in the opening quarter. The Vols wound up outscoring Mizzou and South Carolina by a combined 56-3 in the first quarter, and they've outscored foes in the first quarter this season by a 101-13 clip.

Evans gave Tennessee its largest lead at 35-0 on a 45-yard touchdown run with 5:40 before halftime.

The Vols have reached the midway mark with momentum and a winning record but have ranked foes the next two weeks with a home game against Ole Miss and a trip to Alabama.

"I think it helps in the buy-in," Heupel said. "Our players have seen that if you buy into the process and do it at a really high level, the results will come and that we will continue to grow. This is a game of one-week seasons, and every week is different."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.