Tennessee went to Miami and bested No. 7 Clemson, 31-14, to win the Capital One Orange Bowl. The win gives the Vols’ their first 11-win season since 2001 and caps off a memorable 2022 season.
The Vols defense bended but would not break in the first half while Tennessee’s offense capitalized on its scoring opportunities to the fullest.
Here are the five critical moments that led to Tennessee’s sixth and final top 25 win of the season.
Vols Sniff Out The Fake Field Goal
Tennessee looked like it would get an opening drive stop when Aaron Beasley shot out a cannon for a second down sack. But safety Wesley Walker — who had a strong night after the play — misjudged a deep ball and would should have been an interception ended up being a 33 yard completion.
But Tennessee’s defense bowed up — at it would time-and-time again — once Clemson entered scoring range. Tennessee got pressure on freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik on third-and-four and as the Tigers lined up to kick a 44-yard field goal.
Dabo Swinney had other ideas, trying a fake field goal. Clemson may have converted if Drew Swinney pitched the ball to kicker BT Potter but he didn’t. Kamal Hadden and Solon Page III bottled out Swinney’s run and the Vols kept Clemson off the scoreboard on its first drive.
The stop was a major momentum swing in the young game and set the tone for the bend-don’t-break night for Tennessee’s defense.
Tennessee shuts down the Clemson fake field goal play! 🏈💪 #OrangeBowl pic.twitter.com/O1S0MugrAb
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) December 31, 2022
Milton’s Strike And McCoy’s Grown Man Catch
Tennessee’s offense was hit-or-miss in the Orange Bowl win. On its second drive of the game, Tennessee moved the ball well but looked poised to settle for three points in the redzone.
The Vols converted third-and-one on a quarterback sneak to give themselves first-and-goal at the four-yard line. Instead, the officials gave Josh Heupel an unsportsmanlike conduct call as the Vols coach expressed his frustration at the speed it took to spot the ball.
Instead of the four-yard line, Tennessee had to gain 19 yards in three plays. Jaylen Wright ran for three yards on first down and then Joe Milton III unloaded a seed to Bru McCoy on a post.
Milton did a phenomenal job of looking off the safety with his eyes and McCoy did a great job of making a contested catch.
With its inconsistencies, Tennessee needed to capitalize on all its scoring opportunities against Clemson. Milton’s touchdown pass to McCoy made that a reality and gave the Vols an early lead.
Bru McCoy gives the Vols the lead‼️ pic.twitter.com/P6KSnpxI78
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 31, 2022
More From RTI: PFF Grades From Tennessee’s Win Over Clemson
Tennessee Capitalizes On Klubnik’s Freshman Mistakes
Clemson had the momentum as the first half winded down. With Tennessee leading, 14-3, the Tigers were on the move at the end of the first half.
After missing out on so many scoring opportunities in the first half and ahead of receiving the opening kick off of the second half, Clemson would have gladly taken a one score deficit into the locker room.
That’s when quarterback Cade Klubnik showed that he was just a freshman. Clemson faced second-and-15 at the 18-yard line out of timeouts with just under 30 seconds left in the half. Klubnik scrambled for five yards on second down and instead of spiking the ball and attempting a field goal, Clemson tried to run another play.
Klubnik tried to scramble up the middle and Tyler Baron dragged him down with six seconds left in the half. The clock ran out and a disastrous half of situational football continued for the Tigers.
True freshman moment by Cade Klubnik at the end of the first half😅
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 31, 2022
Tennessee Stuffs Shipley On Fourth Down
Clemson pulled within one score on the opening drive of the second half and was on the move again as Tennessee’s offense faltered early in the third quarter.
The Tigers were on the move with a chance to tie the game, leaning on power back Will Shipley and their running game. Tennessee forced Clemson into fourth-and-two at the 31-yard line, an obvious time to go for it on fourth down.
This time, Swinney didn’t overcomplicate things. Klubnik handed the ball to Shipley and the talented running back looked like he would fall forward for the first down as Juwan Mitchell wrapped around his ankles. Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden had other ideas, knocking Shipley back short of the mark.
Tennessee capitalized on the momentum swing with a touchdown drive of its own. Clemson would never posses the ball down a single possession again.
Milton To Keyton On Consecutive Plays
While Clemson never possessed the ball down one score again, they didn’t go away. Klubnik led a 14 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that ended with a successful two-point play and pulled the score to 21-14.
Tennessee picked up one first down on the ground before quickly facing third-and-nine. Milton was good against Clemson but he struggled on third down all night.
Early in the fourth quarter, Milton worked through his progression, stepped up in the pocket and fired a dot to Ramel Keyton over the middle for a 12-yard drive. It was one of the most impressive plays Milton made all night and it set up the kill shot.
Keyton got behind the Tigers’ secondary the next play and Milton made sure not to overthrow him. The wide open Keyton slowed down for a moment to haul in the pass before walking into the end zone for the score.
Tennessee never looked back.
Joe Milton, this time to Ramel Keyton for the Tennessee touchdown.
3 TD passes tonight for Milton pic.twitter.com/20hBxwvfdf
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 31, 2022