Vols reach double-digit wins in rout of Vanderbilt

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee's Joe Milton III passes during the first half of Saturday's regular-season and SEC finale against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee's Joe Milton III passes during the first half of Saturday's regular-season and SEC finale against Vanderbilt in Nashville.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee is a 10-win football program again.

The Volunteers bounced back from last weekend’s stunning 63-38 setback at South Carolina by vanquishing Vanderbilt 56-0 on a rainy Saturday night at FirstBank Stadium. By improving to 10-2 in Josh Heupel’s second year at the helm, Tennessee notched its first 10-win season since 2007 and its first 10-win regular season since 2003.

“I love the way our kids responded and finished the regular season,” Heupel said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve won 10, and we talked this week about how important it was to finish the right way. Our guys did that, and defensively we really responded in a positive way. They’re a prideful group.

“There has been a lot of talk outside of our program from different people about what the culture is inside of our locker room, and when I got here two years ago, nobody thought we would win 10 by this point. There were 30-plus kids who left this program, but this group chose to stay and bought in.”

The Vols have 21 seasons of 10 or more wins in their history, having amassed three consecutive from 1938-40 and 1970-72 and four straight from 1995-98.

Tennessee will learn its postseason fate on Dec. 4, but the Vols are likely headed for a New Year’s Six bowl destination such as the Cotton in Dallas, the Orange in Miami or the Sugar in New Orleans. The Vols, who are No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings but are expected to move past Clemson and LSU after their losses Saturday, most recently played in the Cotton after the 2004 season, the Orange after the 1997 season and the Sugar after the 1990 season.

“I don’t have preference,” Heupel said. “At the end of the day, I’ve learned that your preference typically doesn’t come true anyway. We obviously have to sit back and watch another week of ball.”

The Commodores concluded Clark Lea’s second season with a 5-7 record, as they were denied their first bowl bid since 2018. Vanderbilt began this month with a 26th consecutive Southeastern Conference defeat but snapped that streak with upsets of Kentucky in Lexington and Florida at home.

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III made his first start since the second game of last season, replacing the injured Hendon Hooker and completing 11 of 21 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown. The Vols achieved substantial damage on the ground behind the trio of Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson, who combined on 28 carries for 370 yards and five scores.

“Our offensive line took over the game in the second half,” Heupel said. “We were able to create big runs, and our running backs were able to step through something in that first or second level and did a great job of extending the play.”

Yet Saturday also was an evening of atonement for the Tennessee defense, which surrendered nine touchdown drives inside South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium but was effective throughout against the Commodores despite playing without Doneiko Slaughter, Brandon Turnage, Trevon Flowers and De’Shawn Rucker in the secondary.

“You’ve got to be built for these moments,” redshirt junior safety Wesley Walker said, “and I feel like we handled it well with a lot of our guys out.”

Said Heupel: “Nobody batted an eye when they got their opportunity.”

Milton wasted no time showcasing his arm strength, launching a 61-yard strike that Jalin Hyatt ran under for a 61-yard gain on the game’s third play to set the Vols up with first-and-goal from the 3. Small scored on the ensuing snap, and Tennessee was up 7-0 in just 55 seconds.

After going three-and-out on their second possession, the Vols drove 76 yards on 11 plays the third time they had the ball and took a 14-0 lead on a fourth-and-1 carry by Princeton Fant. They converted a fourth-and-4 on the Vanderbilt 30 with a strike down the middle from Milton to Ramel Keyton that picked up 23 yards.

When Dee Williams took a punt return up the middle for a 73-yard return at the 8:09 mark of the second quarter, Tennessee was in command at 21-0.

“It’s something I’ve been working hard for all season,” Williams said. “When I was 15 yards from the end zone, it felt pretty good.”

The Vols took the 21-0 lead into halftime and held a 200-96 advantage in total yards.

Vanderbilt got the ball to open the second half and moved to the Tennessee 49-yard line, but a fourth-and-2 run by Ray Davis was stuffed for a 1-yard loss by Walker and Tamarion McDonald. Davis entered Saturday needing 18 yards for a 1,000-yard season and amassed 60 on 21 carries, but his milestone was one of the few bright spots for the hosts.

Two plays after Davis was stopped, Small broke free down the middle of the field for a 52-yard touchdown that made it 28-0 at the 12:26 mark of the third quarter. On Tennessee’s ensuing possession, Wright broke free for a 50-yard score to extend the advantage to 35-0 at the 10:43 mark.

Traveling companion

Hooker, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament during the fourth quarter of last weekend’s loss, made the trip. He wore his jersey and offered support from the sideline.

“I think it’s important for our football team that Hendon is around,” Heupel said. “The leadership doesn’t change just because you’re not the guy taking the snap, and I think it’s important for Hendon, too.”

Said Milton: “Hendon is a warrior, and I told him every single day this week that this is for him. I was trying to get my stats, but this was for him.”

Odds and ends

Small has scored Tennessee’s first touchdown in seven of 12 games this year. … The Vols have five players who have scored at least five rushing touchdowns this season: Small, Wright, Sampson, Hooker and Fant. … Tennessee increased its series advantage against Vanderbilt to 79-32-5 with a fourth consecutive win by 18 or more points. … Heupel on Vols fans: “They showed out in droves on a night when it was not the prettiest of weather, and they stayed.”

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

Updated with more information at 12:20 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2022.

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