Tennessee rebounded from the first loss of the Josh Heupel era with a blowout, 56-0, win over Tennessee Tech.
The Vols outgained the Golden Eagles 417-119 and won the turnover battle four to one. Still, there was plenty for Tennessee— especially its offense— to improve on in the win.
That starts with the vertical passing game where Tennessee continues to struggle hitting open receivers down the field.
“There’s a bunch of plays out there that we’re eventually going to have to take advantage of,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “We have to make some strides here in the next week.”
Tennessee completed one-of-six passes down the field Saturday. Whereas most of the issues have stemmed from poor passes the first two weeks, there was blame to go around against Tennessee Tech.
JaVonta Payton dropped a pass down the sideline, Hooker overshot Cedric Tillman and a missed passed protection assignment allowed Hooker to get his as he threw on a deep pass to a wide open Jalin Hyatt.
Hooker, who started in place of an injured Joe Milton, was up-and-down in his first Tennessee start. The Virginia Tech transfer completed 17-of-25 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns. Hooker added 64 yards, a touchdown and a fumble in the win.
“Some real positives,” Heupel said of Hooker. “Decisive. Accurate at times. He did a good job moving his feet at times, those turnovers can’t happen. There’s some plays in the pass game from in the pocket where you see receivers behind the secondary, again, and we’re not connecting on those. At some point we have to make those plays.”
Tennessee’s running game recorded solid numbers in the win, totaling 202 yards on 47 carries. If you account just for the Vols’ tailbacks, Tennessee ran for 130 yards on 34 carries. The Vols longest run from a tailback was just 15 yards.
Averaging less than four yards against a bad FCS team is not a good number, even behind an offensive line that dealt with three injuries during the game.
“We can be cleaner in the run game up front,” Heupel said. “When I say that I mean the tight ends as well. At times we’re blocking it really clean and we’re not maximizing it at the running back position either. I thought there were a couple plays today out on the perimeter and in the core that we can do a better job of our pace and being able to come out of it and use the blockers in front of us. … We have to get better.”
Another area Heupel is looking for improvement in is the Vols’ tempo. The first year head coach scoffed at whether or not his offense was running at the pace he wanted postgame.
“Our pace isn’t anywhere near where it’s capable of being,” Heupel said. “It’s our skill guys, it’s the offensive line, it’s the quarterbacks too. It’s just a part of us playing a lot cleaner. That’s not the only thing. There’s a lot of things so we have to continue to grow and demand a lot of ourselves and the guy next to us on the offensive side of the ball to play at a higher level that we are capable of playing at.”
That element could be worth watching when Heupel decides whether to start Milton or Hooker moving forward. Tennessee’s offense has moved quicker this season when Milton is playing instead of Hooker.
Tennessee’s offense was good enough to hang big numbers on Tennessee Tech Saturday, but there is plenty of room for improvement as the Vols head to Gainesville for their SEC opener at Florida next week.