Vols regroup to make the most of ‘opportunity that was lost’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee defensive linemen Tyre West (42), Bryson Eason (20) and Jordan Phillips (50) converge on a stop of Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann during Saturday night’s 56-0 win by the Volunteers.

Years from now, Tennessee's 56-0 victory Saturday night at Vanderbilt's rain-soaked FirstBank Stadium may be viewed in the record books as just another lopsided result in the in-state rivalry.

It was, after all, the second-biggest blowout ever by the Volunteers over a Southeastern Conference foe, topped only by their 65-0 win in Nashville when Peyton Manning was a freshman in 1994. Yet those who were involved with this latest decisive outcome against the Commodores know it was about much more than state pride.

"This was an important game for us," Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "It's about finishing, man. Everybody starts something. How do you finish? This was a good finish to a special regular season."

The Vols moved from No. 9 to No. 7 in Sunday's latest Associated Press poll after improving to 10-2 overall and 6-2 in SEC play.

When Tennessee finished Heupel's maiden voyage with a 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue in last December's Music City Bowl, nobody questioned the team's character. It was simply the final chapter of a seven-win season that exceeded expectations following the 3-7 debacle of 2020, and the seven-win season was a springboard to this year's run to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.

A loss at reigning national champion Georgia on Nov. 5 was disappointing but hardly cause for distress, but the 63-38 surprise shellacking at South Carolina on Nov. 19 brought out an abundance of detractors. Adding to the criticism was the absence of linebacker Jeremy Banks in Columbia for reasons Heupel chose not to reveal.

"We were really honest in the locker room after that football game last week," Heupel said, "and everybody knows it was an opportunity that was lost and that there was nobody to blame except ourselves, and that starts with me, our staff and our players. We were highly disappointed in the outcome of that football game, but that happens. Our competitive spirit wasn't what it needed to be, and we weren't dialed in with everything you've got to do.

"We talk about resetting all the time and that you're only as good as your next one. For the coaches, it's done on Sundays in the office when you flip forward, and for our players, they've got to go watch the tape on Monday. You could feel that it hurt, and by the time we got on the grass on Tuesday, our guys were bouncing around, and we had good practices."

On Tuesday night during ESPN's College Football Playoff rankings show, however, longtime analyst Kirk Herbstreit said: "They're fighting amongst themselves in the locker room. Things are not good right now in Knoxville."

"Those types of things you can't control," Vols quarterback Joe Milton III said. "Everybody always has something to say about something, so you control what you can control. We knew inside the building that we were brothers, and we kept it like that. We didn't have to change anything."

Former starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, who's out for the season with a torn ACL, was credited by Heupel for helping establish a culture that was maintained in Nashville. Ultimately, Heupel added, a culture whether growing or proven is the responsibility of everyone involved.

"This football team has faced a ton of adversity in the last 2 1/2 years," Heupel said. "These kids have handled it the right way. That does not mean that we've played perfect each week, obviously, but they handle adversity, they fight and they regroup and come back."

Unique celebration

Junior cornerback Dee Williams fooled the Commodores midway through the second quarter on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown that upped Tennessee's lead to 21-0.

Williams then tricked those in attendance with a celebration routine that included acting like he had pulled his hamstring.

"I've been practicing that for a long time," a smiling Williams said. "I've been making TikToks in my free time. When I got to the sideline, my position coach, Coach (Willie) Martinez, was like, 'Did you pull something?'

"I was like, 'Nah, I'm cool. It was part of the celebration.'"

Odds and ends

Tennessee's average of 11.7 yards per carry Saturday night set a single-game program record. ... The Vols notched their first shutout of an SEC opponent since blanking Vanderbilt 48-0 in 2003. ... Tennessee's 116 yards in punt returns marked the most since a 123-yard outing against Vandy in 2015. ... With receivers Bru McCoy and Cedric Tillman sidelined, freshman Squirrel White made his starting debut and became the first first-time starter for the Vols since the Alabama game on Oct. 15. ... Tennessee has surpassed 50 points in six of 12 games and has surpassed 500 yards nine times.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.