Tennessee (11-2, 6-2 SEC) capped off its renaissance 2022 season with a convincing, 31-14, win over Clemson (11-3, 9-0 ACC) in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
The Vols defense took “bend-don’t-break” to a whole new level with their ability to hold Clemson scoreless in scoring opportunities while Joe Milton III and Tennessee’s offense did enough to earn a comfortable victory.
Here’s four quick takeaways as Tennessee caps off the 2022 season with a bang.
Tennessee’s Defense Bends But Doesn’t Break In First Half
Clemson’s offense got multiple first downs in its first four drives of the games. The Tigers reached Tennessee’s side of the field on all four drives, in fact driving inside the Tennessee 35-yard line in all four drives. Somehow, the Tigers couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
The Tigers lined up for field goals on its first four drives but the Vols sniffed out a fake field goal and Clemson kicker BT Potter missed three field goal attempts.
While the Clemson special teams miscues were the story, Tennessee’s defense made strong plays to make them possible.
Byron Young showed fantastic closing speed for a third down sack on Clemson’s second drive. The three-yard loss pushed the field goal attempt all the way back to 55 yards. What would have been Potter’s season long was never close, sailing wide right.
On the Tigers’ third drive, Tennessee’s defense bowed up and forced three straight incompletions — in large part due to strong pass rush — and another long Potter field goal try (49 yards) sailed wide right.
Clemson’s fifth drive finally produced points but once again Tennessee’s defense limited damage forcing a field goal attempt in the red zone after strong coverage led to a throw away on third-and-four.
Perhaps the biggest coup of the half was the last one. Clemson moved into the red zone but freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik made a terrible freshman mistake, trying to scramble in the middle of the field without a timeout. Tyler Baron drug him down inside the 10 yard line and the first half clock ran out without Clemson being able to run another play.
Boom-Or-Bust For Tennessee’s Offense
While it was a bend-don’t-break night for Tennessee’s defense, the Vols offense went the other direction. Tennessee struggled to move it for most the night, but when they did they made it count. That was particularly obvious in the first half.
The Vols thrice went three-and-out, had two drives where they got just one first down — and gained no more than 17 yards — on two other drives. But in the Vols other two drives of the half, they made it count.
Tennessee’s best drive of the night was 12 play, 75 yard scoring drive that took just over four minutes. The Vols methodically moved the ball down the field and after a Mickey Mouse unsportsmanlike conduct call on Josh Heupel backed Tennessee into a goal-to-goal situation at the 19-yard line, Joe Milton uncorked a 17-yard rope to Bru McCoy for a touchdown.
Three drives later, Milton his massive arm. The senior uncorked a 50-yard bomb to Squirrel White setting up a two-yard touchdown run.
The theme largely continued in the second half as Tennessee struggled to sustain drives but capitalized on its scoring opportunities. When the Vols moved the ball on the ground one drive — including a Jaylen Wright 42-yard run — Milton had one of his best plays of the night, moving the safety with a pump fake and firing a 14-yard touchdown to White.
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Tennessee’s Front Seven Controls The Game
Tennessee’s front seven has been up-and-down this season. They’ve dominated games against Pitt, LSU and Kentucky but were non existent in others.
The Vols front saved their best performance for last. The group has been good defending the run all season and they were solid at it against in the Orange Bowl, holding the Tigers to 165 yards on 45 attempts.
Where Tennessee particularly excelled against Clemson was getting after the passer— the area they were least consistent this season.
Freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik was under pressure all night. The Vols ran an excessive amount of zone blitzes and many of them confused the quarterback as Aaron Beasley got home for two sacks. But Tennessee got home without bring pressure as well. Byron Young tallied two third down sacks. Baron made the tackle for a short gain that ended the first half.
In the end, Tennessee tallied four sacks and two more quarterback hurries against the Tigers. The pass rushing success was massive for the Vols as they kept the freshman from gaining comfortability.
The Joe Milton III Era Begins With An Elite Answer
Through the first three quarters, Joe Milton III played as well as we’ve seen him play in his time at Tennessee. Still, Tennessee’s offense had often been stagnant and the senior quarterback made some of the simple mistakes we’ve seen plague him.
Clemson scored its first touchdown of the game and pulled within seven points with an early fourth quarter touchdown. Tennessee’s defense had spent an absurd amount of time on the field and Clemson was starting to lean on the Vols with its run game.
It felt like Tennessee needed another score to hang on. Then Joe Milton made two of the biggest plays of the game.
On third-and-eight, Milton worked through his reads, stepped up in the pocket and delivered a first down strike to Ramel Keyton. A play later, Josh Heupel schemed Keyton open down the field and Milton did what he often hasn’t done— slightly under throwing his receiver.
Keyton waited on the ball for half a second and then walked into the end zone for what proved to be a game sealing touchdown.
Tennessee’s coaches will hold an open quarterback competition this offseason. Milton’s experience already made him the favorite to win it but his play against Clemson — and particularly his answer to the Tigers’ touchdown — makes him the Vols no doubt starting quarterback to open the 2023 season.
Anyone ever find out what the unsportsmanlike penalty was that helped clemson get the 2-pt conversion? That Big 10 ref crew was as lousy as the ESPN coverage.