Joe Milton’s Tennessee debut got off to a strong start. The Michigan transfer started nine-for-11 with 95 passing yards and a rushing touchdown.
Under Josh Heupel’s up tempo offense, Milton led Tennessee to a pair of touchdown drives lasting less than two minutes.
Then trouble hit, the Vols’ offense sputtered in the second quarter with a trio of three-and-outs and Milton completed just two of his last 12 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought the pass game was really hit and miss from us tonight,” Heupel said postgame. “Some of that was quarterback decision making and being accurate with the football. Some of it was wide receivers being on the same page. [There were] a couple of opportunities to catch it that we didn’t. We are going to have to be a lot more efficient in the pass game than we were tonight.”
Heupel is right, there was plenty of blame to go around for Tennessee’s failures in the passing game including a pair of bad Jalin Hyatt drops.
Leading 14-6, Tennessee came out of halftime and ran the ball eight straight plays on a 72-yard touchdown drive. Then two drives later, the Vols turned five runs and a defensive pass interference into a 54 yard touchdown drive that effectively put Bowling Green away.
Tennessee attempted just nine passes compared to 44 runs in the second half and while the Vols could assert their will on Bowling Green that won’t be the case most the season.
Milton struggled for much of the game, missing Cedric Tillman deep for a pair of would-be touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 quarterback was hesitant on some intermediate passes over the middle too.
The Michigan transfer said very little about his performance in his postgame press conference but did note his room for improvement.
“I played good but there’s a lot to learn from as an offense but we’ll get better,” Milton said.
To Heupel’s credit, the first year head coach was honest about the improvements he needs to see from Milton and the rest of Tennessee’s offense.
“There were a couple of times that I didn’t like his decision making,” Heupel said. “There were some things that were open; a couple of guys running open down the middle of the football field that he didn’t recognize or see. There are some things that he has to clean up. Offensively, we will have to clean up a bunch of things, too. At the same time, there were some positives that came out of it as well.”
While Heupel was critical of Milton and his offense as a whole, he was quick to say they have complete confidence in Milton and that he remains their starting quarterback moving forward.
“No,” Heupel said, if he considered benching Milton against Bowling Green. “There wasn’t anything that was earth-shattering that felt like we had to make a change. We believe in Joe.”
Life gets a lot harder for Tennessee’s offense next Saturday. Pat Narduzzi will bring a solid Pittsburgh team to Neyland Stadium led by a quality front four and run defense.
Thursday was just Joe Milton’s first game at Tennessee and he had to fight through some adversity— drops and the injury to center Cooper Mays— but, still, Milton’s debut left plenty to be desired.
Tennessee needs Milton and the passing attack to be much better starting next week, and Heupel knows it.