Vols' Heupel on first ‘old school’ win of his career: ‘I’m good with it’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee improved to 5-1 this season and to 23-9 under third-year coach Josh Heupel with Saturday's 20-13 topping of Texas A&M, winning for the first time when failing to reach 30 points.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee improved to 5-1 this season and to 23-9 under third-year coach Josh Heupel with Saturday's 20-13 topping of Texas A&M, winning for the first time when failing to reach 30 points.

KNOXVILLE — Josh Heupel went all Vince Dooley, Pat Dye and Johnny Majors on Saturday.

Evoking the mandatory traits for football success a generation ago, Heupel’s No. 19 Tennessee Volunteers used a relentless ground game, a stingy defense and quality special teams to grind out a 20-13 victory over Texas A&M before a sold-out, checkerboarded crowd of 101,915 at Neyland Stadium.

Heupel is now 23-9 midway through his third season at Tennessee and 51-17 midway through his sixth year as a college head coach, but his 51st career triumph was the first in which his team failed to score at least 30 points.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in one of these, and I’m good with it,” Heupel said after this season’s Vols improved to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in Southeastern Conference play. “I like coming out on the right side of it. Obviously offensively we want to be more efficient when we can be, but I’ve said from when I got here that the expectation and the standard is to play elite defense and not just good defense.

“This is the home of Eric Berry and Al Wilson and Reggie White. The standard is to be elite, and when I got here, we were devastated on the defensive side of the football from things that were outside our control, but we continued to build it from scheme, understanding the scheme to recruiting guys and the depth. We’re just getting started as to what we will be on that side week in and week out.”

Tennessee’s win was its 13th straight inside Neyland.

When asked about the most “old school” triumph of the Heupel era, Vols senior defensive end Tyler Baron said, “He was definitely excited after the win, but we carry the mindset to win regardless of how we’ve got to get it done.”

Coming off their lone open date of the season, the Vols rushed 49 times for 232 yards against the SEC’s top rushing defense, with junior running back Jaylen Wright leading the way with 19 carries for 136 yards. Wright has surpassed 100 yards four times in six games and now has 571 yards this season, averaging 7.14 yards per carry.

“Confidence was a big thing today,” Wright said. “We were prepared for it, and I just want to thank our O-linemen for just opening up seams and sustaining blocks. We tuned out the noise this past week and just did our thing.”

Said Heupel: “We had some really good efficiency in the run game against a really good defensive line.”

Defensively, the Vols held the Aggies to 277 yards, including 54 on the ground, and used Gabe Jeudy-Lally’s 36-yard interception return to Texas A&M’s 6 to set up Charles Campbell’s 24-yard field goal with 2:31 remaining that capped the scoring. The last gasp for the Aggies resulted in a Kamal Hadden interception on fourth-and-10 from Texas A&M’s 45 with 22 seconds left.

Tennessee took its first lead at 14-10 on a 39-yard punt return by Dee Williams with 6:47 remaining in the third quarter. The Vols had pinned the Aggies at their 1-yard line on a 49-yard Jackson Ross punt that was downed by Williams, and three Texas A&M plays netted zero yards.

“It’s something I’ve been working hard for,” Williams said of his second career score and his first since last November’s 73-yard return at Vanderbilt.

A Randy Bond 24-yard field goal later in the third quarter pulled Texas A&M within 14-13, but Bond’s 50-yard attempt with 8:34 remaining was wide left. Tennessee extended its advantage to 17-13 on Campbell’s 31-yard field goal with 3:48 to play.

Texas A&M dropped to 4-3 overall with its eighth consecutive road loss and to 2-2 in SEC play, and the Aggies are 9-10 overall and 4-8 in conference contests since the start of the 2022 season. Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher had to deal with some fiery questions in his news conference, including one that asked how he could convince fans and donors that he is the right man for the job.

“They ain’t hurting any more than our kids are,” Fisher said. “Don’t put them above our players. I love our players, and I love our fans, and I love our people who give money, but these kids are what’s important.

“We’ve got to coach them better so they can play better, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

After Tennessee took its opening possession out to midfield before having to punt, Texas A&M drove 80 yards in seven plays and took a 7-0 lead on quarterback Max Johnson’s 2-yard scramble. The Vols committed pass interference and jumped offsides on their first two defensive snaps, and a 29-yard pass from Johnson to Noah Thomas to the Tennessee 4 set up Johnson’s score.

“We just had to settle down,” Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley said. “They scored pretty early, but we just had to settle down and snap and clear to the next play. Once the game slowed down for us, we were able to play the way we know we can play and not make mistakes.”

The Vols moved 57 yards on 10 plays with their second drive, but a fourth-and-2 pass from Joe Milton III at Texas A&M’s 18 sailed incomplete as the Aggies maintained their advantage.

Texas A&M’s second possession ended with Johnson taking a hard hit from Vols edge rusher James Pearce on a third-down incompletion, and Tennessee then answered the Aggies with a six-play, 51-yard touchdown drive that ended with Milton connecting with tight end Jacob Warren from 7 yards out. Ramel Keyton had dropped a potential touchdown pass from Milton on third-and-1 at the Texas A&M 42, but a roughing-the-passer penalty on Shemar Turner on the same play gave the Vols a fresh set of downs at the 27.

Next up for the Vols is a visit to No. 11 Alabama, which improved to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in league play with Saturday’s 24-21 escape of Arkansas.

“I think we’ll be ready for whoever is in front of us,” Beasley said. “Right now, I’m focused on tonight and celebrating this win with my brothers.”

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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