For the second straight week, Tennessee beat a SEC opponent. The Vols led from start to finish against the Gamecocks, earning their second SEC win of the season, 45-20.
Here are five quick takeaways on the win.
Another Fast Start For Tennessee
Perhaps the biggest strength of the Tennessee football team so far this season is its ability to start games. The Vols SEC opening loss at Florida is the only time this season that Tennessee didn’t score a game’s first points.
That theme continued with Tennessee jumping all over South Carolina in the first quarter Saturday.
South Carolina received the opening kick and promptly went three-and-out.
Tennessee went 66 yards on 14 plays in its first drive, converting four third downs— the last of which was a three-yard slant to Jalin Hyatt to give the Vols a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The Gamecocks would move the sticks for the first time on its second drive but wouldn’t cross midfield.
Then Heupel dialed up the deep shot as Hendon Hooker rolled to the right and found JaVonta Payton behind the defense for a 39-yard touchdown. The score marked Payton’s fourth straight game with a touchdown.
South Carolina answered with a beautiful drive, grinding out 50 yards on the ground to set up second-and-goal at the three-yard line. That’s where the Gamecocks got cute, trying a running back pass.
The Vols had been beat by two running back passes this season but this time they were ready. Jaylen McCollough intercepted the pass in the end zone and five plays later Hooker was strolling in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
A Velus Jones Jr. touchdown reception would continue the fun for UT and give the Vols a 28-0 lead in the first quarter.
For the second straight week Tennessee scored 28 points in the first quarter. The Vols outgained South Carolina 227 to 96 in the first quarter.
Hooker was brilliant for Tennessee, completing 10-of-13 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns. The Virginia Tech grad transfer added 26 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Through six games this season, Tennessee is outsourcing opponents 101-13 in the first quarter.
Vols Win The Turnover Battle Again
Tennessee’s defense didn’t force a fumble in the first two games of the season, one of just a small handful of teams that hadn’t two weeks into the season.
The Vols got off the snide against Tennessee Tech the next week forcing four turnovers and have forced nine turnovers since, ranking in the top half of the SEC.
That trend continued Saturday with the Vols forcing two takeaways against the Gamecocks.
In the first quarter, Tennessee forced a pair of turnovers that were critical in its ability to jump out to a 35-0 lead.
First, with South Carolina deep in Tennessee’s red zone, looking like it was about to cut the Vols’ lead to seven points. That’s when McCollough read the double pass and intercepted Jordan Burch in the end zone.
On South Carolina’s next offensive play, quarterback Luke Doty fumbled the snap and Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley came up with the football at the bottom of the pile.
On the other side of the ball, Hooker and Tennessee continue to take good care of the football. The Vols didn’t turn it over against a South Carolina team that led the SEC in forced fumbles entering the game.
Hooker Looking Better And Better
Tennessee just beat an SEC team by 25 points, so this is completely fair of me. But it’s hard to imagine Tennessee wouldn’t be 5-1 if Hooker had started since the Bowling Green game.
The dual threat quarterback was fantastic throughout the Vols’ 45-20 win over South Carolina.
Hooker got going early, recording for touchdowns in the first quarter. The grad transfer was efficient and on time with the ball, leading the Vols offense at a rapid pace. Hooker completed passes of 39, 31 and 20 yards in the first half— throwing the ball accurately on all three.
Hooker ended the first half completing 15-of-20 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns. On the ground, the quarterback added 49 yards and a score.
The senior signal caller is clearly getting more comfortable with the pace that Josh Heupel wants him to run the offense at too. Multiple times Saturday, Hooker yelled at his offensive line to get ready before the snap.
After an uninspiring second half, Hooker finished 17-of-23 passing for 225 yards and three touchdowns, adding 66 yards and a score on the ground.
Hooker is getting better and better every week in Heupel’s offense and for the first time since 2016 there is no questions at the quarterback position. Hendon Hooker is Tennessee’s starter and he’s a good quarterback.
Velus Jones Jr. Role Continues To Increase
Senior receiver Velus Jones. Jr had just nine catches through the first four weeks of the season. The Mobile, Alabama native made the most of those nine catches, recording 160 yards.
Last week at Missouri, playing more snaps at slot receiver than the rest of the season combined, Jones broke out with seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
The former Southern Cal receiver’s increased production continued Saturday as Jones hauled in six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown
Jones was effective in the return game— as he almost always is— in the screen game, on underneath passing and even taking the top off the defense once on a deep ball.
Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said this week that it took them time to figure out which players gave them what and how everyone fit in. There’s no better example of that than Jones, who is playing great football right now for an improving Tennessee offense.
Vols Look Flat In Second Half
After a dominant first half, Tennessee came out flat in the third quarter. The Vols’ offense didn’t cross midfield in the third quarter and went three-and-out on two of their three drives.
Tennessee’s defense wasn’t as bad but South Carolina was able to move the ball on them much better than the first half. The Gamecocks scored 14 second half points with one touchdown coming on a 44-yard completion on a fake punt and the other coming on a 15 play, 80 yard drive where South Carolina converted on third-and-18.
Miscommunication hurt Tennessee’s offense in the fourth quarter and after looking nearly unstoppable in the first half, the Vols offense struggled in the second before adding a late touchdown.
After gaining 373 yards in the first half, Tennessee earned just 99 yards in the second half. Eight of those yards came through the air and 91 came on the ground.
The Vols were without running back Tiyon Evans for much of the second half after he suffered an injury in the third quarter. Tennessee was already without running back Jabari Small forcing the Vols’ run offense to lean on Hooker and Len’Neth Whitehead.
It didn’t cost Tennessee against South Carolina, but the Vols’ horrible second half would certainly cost them against the majority of their opponents on the rest of the schedule.