Milton accounts for six touchdowns as Vols vanquish Vanderbilt

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior tight end McCallan Castles hauls in a 10-yard touchdown reception late in the first quarter that put the Vols ahead to stay at 14-7 in Saturday's home game against Vanderbilt.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior tight end McCallan Castles hauls in a 10-yard touchdown reception late in the first quarter that put the Vols ahead to stay at 14-7 in Saturday's home game against Vanderbilt.

KNOXVILLE — In a span of one week, the Tennessee Volunteers went from playing the best team in Southeastern Conference football to the worst.

The difference was noticeable.

Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III compiled a career-high four touchdown passes and rushed for two scores as the No. 25 Vols routed Vanderbilt 48-24 Saturday afternoon inside Neyland Stadium for their fifth consecutive lopsided series win. Milton was 22-of-32 passing against the Commodores for a career-best 383 yards, and his six touchdowns responsible were the most for the Vols since Jonathan Crompton had six in a 56-28 whipping of Memphis in 2009.

“You want to go out with a bang,” Milton said. “Every game you try and do that, but the most important one is the last one inside your stadium. That’s the legacy I’m going to hold on to.”

The Vols finished their regular season with an 8-4 record that included a 4-4 mark in SEC play, marking their third straight year of .500 or better in league contests, which is their longest since a 16-season run under Phillip Fulmer from 1989 to 2004 that included the 1998 national championship. Tennessee improved to 26-12 in Josh Heupel’s three seasons, which includes a 19-6 mark in the past two, the most wins over a two-year stretch for the Vols since 2006-07.

“I’m proud of this group,” Heupel said. “They’ve worked extremely hard. They’ve prepared the right way, and on game day, they’ve been resilient. Every Saturday is different, and we’ve all had some disappointment when we don’t end up on the right side of the scoreboard. This group has never walked out there on a field thinking they’re not going to win.

“I’m really proud of where we started, where we’re at and where we’ve got to continue to fight to go get to.”

Vanderbilt lost its 10th consecutive contest to conclude a 2-10 season in which it lost all eight league games by at least 16 points. The winless run through SEC play was the third for the Commodores in the past four seasons.

Bouncing back from last weekend’s 38-10 loss to top-ranked Georgia in which Tennessee’s only touchdown was junior Jaylen Wright’s 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, the Vols struck quickly again with a 56-yard scoring strike from Milton down the middle to Ramel Keyton on the game’s third play. Vanderbilt responded impressively, answering Tennessee’s early score with a four-play, 73-yard drive that culminated with AJ Swann’s 19-yard flip pass for a touchdown to Junior Sherrill.

Milton collected his second touchdown pass on a 10-yarder to sixth-year senior tight end McCallan Castles at the 3:13 mark of the opening quarter to put the Vols on top to stay at 14-7, and his third scoring toss was a 34-yarder to another sixth-year senior tight end, Jacob Warren, in the first minute of the second quarter. The three aerial scores in the first 16 minutes tied Milton’s previous high at Tennessee that he set in last December’s Orange Bowl win over Clemson.

Both of Milton’s rushing scores came from 2 yards out, with the first occurring five seconds before halftime to put the Vols up 31-10, and his second with 13 seconds left in the third to make it 45-10, which gave Tennessee its largest lead.

“I’m proud of his resiliency and his ability to continue to prepare and fight and compete extremely well,” Heupel said. “He was really good throughout the course of the football game, and he was decisive and was in the right spot. He did some really good things, and I was also proud of the effort of the offensive line, which is extremely beat up.”

The fourth touchdown pass by the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Pahokee, Florida, was a 46-yarder to Keyton, which gave the Vols a 38-10 lead at the 9:33 mark of the third quarter. That six-play, 80-yard drive was also highlighted by a 14-yard run from Wright, which allowed him to surpass 1,000 yards for the season.

Wright, who rushed 11 times for 75 yards against the Commodores, has tallied 1,013 yards to become Tennessee’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jalen Hurd in 2015.

Much of the second quarter involved officials repeatedly separating the two teams, as three players wound up getting offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Commodores coach Clark Lea also was flagged after showing his visible frustration once Swann was taken to the ground following a play that had been ruled dead.

“It did get pretty chippy there for a little bit,” Heupel said. “We tried to address it on the sideline, and we talked as a coaching staff as well. We talked at halftime about playing smart football, and we didn’t necessarily do that. We had more penalties than normal.”

Said senior linebacker Aaron Beasley: “I don’t know what happened. There was just a bunch of chaos going on, but we regrouped well. The coaches were yelling at us, and we realized we couldn’t get kicked out. We weren’t trying to get kicked out, that’s for sure.”

The Vols and Commodores combined on 20 penalties for 183 yards.

Tennessee will now await its bowl destination, which will be revealed on Sunday, Dec. 3. Most projections have the Vols in the Gator Bowl against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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