Tennessee picked up its first SEC win of the Josh Heupel era Saturday, dominating Missouri 62-24 at Faurot Field in Columbia.
The Vols offense scored on their first nine drives and scored touchdowns on their first six drives in Tennessee’s most complete performance in years.
Here’s four quick takeaways on the blowout win.
Vols Take Control In First Quarter
Dominant isn’t strong enough of a word to describe Tennessee’s first quarter in Columbia Saturday. The Vols jumped out a 28-3 lead while averaging 15.5 yards per game.
Tennessee’s defense forced a three-and-out to start the game before the offense went 57 yards in five plays, capped off by a beautiful 35-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker to JaVonta Payton.
Missouri answered with its only scoring drive of the quarter, but it came with two conversions on third and long. The Tigers got on the board with a 43-yard field goal but had nothing else against the Vols in the first quarter.
Tennessee answered the field goal with another quick touchdown drive that saw the Vols average 10.6 yards per carry. After the Vols’ defense forced their second punt of the quarter, Tiyon Evans went 92 yards untouched on the first play of the drive.
By itself, the 21-3 start was dominant from Tennessee. It was already the best quarter Tennessee had played in years when linebacker Jeremy Banks intercepted a Connor Bazelak pass and returned it 32 yards to the Missouri one-yard line.
From there, it took Tiyon Evans one play again, scoring easily from a yard out to give the Vols a 28-3 lead.
Tennessee scored four touchdowns, averaging a staggering 51 seconds per drive.
The Vols outgained Missouri 217 to 139 in the first quarter, averaging 15.5 yards per play. The best quarter of the Josh Heupel era gave Tennessee the fast start it needed to coast past Missouri for a critical SEC win.
Missouri’s Run Defense Was As Advertised
Missouri’s defense entered the game allowing 270 rushing yards per game. The Tigers had by far the worst run defense in the SEC and the second worst run defense in the nation entering the game.
The Tigers’ run defense lived up to its reputation as Tennessee throttled Missouri on the ground all game.
Even with running back Jabari Small exiting the game due to injury in the first half, Tennessee’s running backs ran wild on Missouri.
In the first half, the Vols totaled 275 rushing yards on 26 carries for an impressive 10.7 yards per carry.
Tennessee running back Tiyon Evans said the Vols were “going to have a lot of fun” against Missouri’s defense earlier this week. Evans certainly did, tallying 123 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries in the first half. The talented junior college transfer ended the game with 15 carries for 156 yards and three touchdowns.
The Vols simply ran the ball at will against Missouri. Whether it was Small, Evans, Hendon Hooker, Marcus Pierce Jr. or Len’Neth Whitehead, Tennessee made consistent plays in the run game.
Tennessee totaled 452 yards on the ground on 58 carries, averaging over seven yards a carry.
The effectiveness of the running game setup Tennessee’s passing attack for plenty of success too. Hendon Hooker turned in his best game in a UT jersey, making plays with his arm and legs. More on that in a bit.
Tennessee Bottles Up Missouri’s Run Game
I wrote in our game predictions— which I very stupidly picked Missouri— that I thought Tennessee had a chance to win on both sides of the line of scrimmage against the Tigers.
With Tennessee running for 452 yards, the Vols clearly controlled the offensive line of scrimmage. Less noticeable was Tennessee’s ability to control the defensive line of scrimmage.
Missouri’s offense is known for its passing attack more than its rushing attack, but the Tigers are still a solid running team with Tyler Badie.
The Vols bottled up that rushing attack, especially early as Tennessee took control of the game. Missouri ran for 12 yards on 13 carries in the first quarter and struggled to get its rushing attack going all game.
In total, the Tigers ran for just 67 yards on 29 carries.
The emergence of Tennessee’s run defense was critical to its defensive success on Saturday but also a promising sign for the defense going forward.
Through three games, Tennessee’s rush defense was one of the in the country but the Vols had seen two vastly inferior opponents and a Pitt team that relies on its passing game. Then at Florida, against the SEC’s best rush offense, Tennessee was torched in the second half for 174 rushing yards.
Missouri’s rushing attack represented the middle of the pack SEC rushing attacks that Tennessee needs to be able limit. The Vols showed that they can make teams like Missouri beat them through the air. That’s a good sign for a defense that continues to overachieve.
Hooker Turns In His Best Tennessee Performance
Before Tennessee’s rushing offense began throttling Missouri’s defense. The Vols got on the board through the air when Hooker found Payton for a 35-yard touchdown on a skinny post.
Hooker hit Payton right in stride. It was the best pass from a Tennessee quarterback so far this season.
The Virginia Tech grad transfer impressed in his Tennessee debut against Pitt, but made too many mistakes to help the Vols pull off the comeback win. In three starts since that game, Hooker has turned it over just one time and was fantastic against the Tigers.
Hooker connected on three passes over 23 yards in the air while also finding Velus Jones Jr. for a 35-yard screen pass.. The senior was on time and accurate with the football, completing 15-of-19passes for 225 yards and three touchdown passes.
Jones had his best game of the 2021 season, catching seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Hooker made plays with his feet too, tallying 74 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The transfer quarterback has been consistent behind center since becoming the Vols’ starter and seems to be getting better every time out.