Tennessee Starts Strong, Looks to Pittsburgh

By Mark Nagi

For the second straight season, the Tennessee Volunteers got an early start with a weeknight matchup against a MAC team.

For the second straight season, a blowout victory was in the cards. 92,236 fans packed into Neyland Stadium as the Vols ended up rolling to a 59-10 beatdown over the Cardinals on Thursday night, September 1.

“Tonight, was a great night,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “I appreciate on a Thursday night the student section and our fans showing up in a big-time way. There was awesome energy from the time we got off the bus for the Vol Walk to running through the T. They were awesome tonight, and it was a great way to kick off our season.”

If the first play of a season is an indication of how the rest of the campaign will go, 2022 will be terrific for the Tennessee Volunteers.

Tamarion McDonald made an interception on the opening snap from scrimmage against Ball State, which was immediately followed by a Hendon Hooker to Jalin Hyatt touchdown pass.

Hooker ended up with a typically solid performance. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdown passes.  He also had two short touchdown runs. The Vols scored six touchdowns and a field goal in the eight possessions in which he was on the field.

“We had to come out and play clean,” said Hooker. “We expect to score every possession we are out there. We have to move efficiently and play smart football at the end of the day.”

“I thought he (Hooker) was very efficient, in command and control,” said Heupel. “Our tempo, run game, decisions, checks, pass game, same thing. Structurally some things we game planned for and some things we hadn’t. The adjustments on the sideline he handled in a really good way. I thought he was in great command of the football game.”

The Vols passing attack was in full swing, with ten different players catching at least one pass. Not surprisingly, Cedric Tillman led the Vols with six catches for 68 yards.

“The guys have proven that they earned the right to have more opportunities than they did a year ago,” said Heupel of his receivers. “Last year on week one, we were still finding out a lot about our football team. We are this year too, but there is a lot known. A year into it, there are more guys that understand offensively what we are doing and the why behind it.”

Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and newcomer Dylan Sampson paced the team on the ground with a combined 36 carries for 183 yards, with each player rushing for a score.

Defensively the Vols came up with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, keeping Ball State off the scoreboard until midway into the third quarter when the Vols were leading 45-0 and the game had been all but over for a long time.

“There are always mistakes, but we learn from them,” said McDonald. “We play fast, learn from them and just play together. If we are all sound, we should be good.”

Now all attention turns to Saturday afternoon’s affair at Pittsburgh. The Panthers are coming off a tight win over rival West Virginia in the resumption of the Backyard Brawl game. Last season Pittsburgh beat the Vols at Neyland Stadium. This time around the game will be played in the Steel City.

“I thought there was a lot to be excited about in all three phases of the game and early in the game,” said Heupel. “Obviously, there are some things we need to clean up as we get ready for a big one (against Pittsburgh) …”