Josh Heupel couldn’t have drawn up a better start to his second season in Knoxville than what occurred inside Neyland Stadium Thursday night.
Aaron Beasley blew up a Ball State trick play to start the game, hitting Cardinals’ quarterback John Paddock as his pass sailed into the arms of Tamarion McDonald. Hendon Hooker found Jalin Hyatt a play later and the junior receiver broke a tackle to score from 23 yards out.
Two plays. One forced turnover. One touchdown.
There was no one with more energy or excitement than Josh Heupel as officials had to walk the Volunteer head coach off the field as he hyped up the 92,236 fans inside Neyland Stadium.
With nearly 9,000 more fans in attendance for the 2022 Thursday night opener compared to the 2021 Thursday night opener, the growth and energy within the Volunteer program was on display.
“Hopefully, there is a ton of belief and optimism and excitement for the program,” Heupel said. “I don’t want to say hopefully; there is. You can feel it, and we appreciate that, our program, coaches and players. The effort that has gone in to get to this point, we appreciate our fans for coming out in a big way.”
Hooker’s first pass of the season ended in the end zone and it was the first of four times — twice through the air and twice on the ground — the super senior found the end zone.
The second year starter didn’t complete a pass over 35 yards but was efficient and effective throughout the evening.
“I thought he was very efficient, in command and control,” Heupel said. “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.”
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Tennessee’s coaches talked about their desire to play more receivers this season and they did that early in the season opener. The Vols played seven receivers in the first quarter and eight different receivers caught passes.
Hooker spread the ball around the field with four different Tennessee pass catchers totaling between 42 and 68 yards.
“It was wonderful,” Hooker said. “That’s my thing. I love to spread the ball around and get it into the playmakers’ hands. Tonight, I got a chance to do that and they all made plays.”
With Hooker in control, Tennessee’s offense coasted. The Vols scored 45 points from six touchdowns and one field goal in the eight drives Hooker quarterbacked. By the time the dual threat quarterback exited the game early in the third quarter, Tennessee led 45-7.
However, the game was over in practicality after the game’s first two plays and in reality after Tennessee led 24-0 three plays into the second quarter.
“I thought we handled the tempo in a really good way; I do not think there were any false starts or procedure penalties,” Heupel said of his offense. “We got our cleats in the ground, got set and it was good to see. A week from now, there is going to be crowd noise and things we have to battle, so we have to continue to play that way and play ahead of the chains. We have to be a smart football team.”
There’s little one can truly glean from a seven touchdown beatdown of a MAC team looking to return to a second straight bowl game. But memories of the first game of Jeremy Pruitt’s second season still loom in Knoxville.
That infamous loss to Georgia State started in completely opposite fashion. Ty Chandler fumbled on the second play from scrimmage and the Panthers quickly took a 7-0 lead.
Ball State didn’t sniff a lead Thursday and only managed to keep the game knotted for 23 seconds.
Everyone in Vol nation can be thankful for that type of beatdown as a new season begins.