Tennessee scored an 81-yard touchdown on its first play from scrimmage, found the end zone on four of its first five drives and didn’t punt until there was seven minutes left in the first half.
Yet the questions surrounding Tennessee’s offense entering the week four matchup against UTSA persist following the Vols’ 45-14 victory.
Tennessee’s offensive shortcoming start with its poor third quarter that saw the Vols total 14 yards and one first down on their first two drives. While this stretch wasn’t as long, Tennessee has had a poor stretch of offense where they fail to move the ball and run clock in every game this season.
That lack of consistency hasn’t cost them against three overmatched foes, but cost them badly a week ago when Florida opened up a lopsided second quarter lead in the midst of Tennessee’s offensive stagnation.
“It’s, again, a reminder for the competitive edge that you’ve got to have and continue to keep during the course of a ball game too,” Heupel said of the third quarter.
During that poor third quarter stretch, Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III was one-of-seven passing and was completely out of rhythm with his receivers. Not all the issues were Milton’s fault but besides clear drops all passing deficiencies are going to fall on Milton.
Inconsistency has been the one consistent in Milton’s career and it showed up even in a game where he did everything his coaches asked of him well in the first half.
“Couple of them are him (Milton),” Heupel said of the passing struggles. “Couple deep balls were a little bit off. Wide receivers being in sync on some of their route patterns too in the middle of the field. It’s a combination of all those things that didn’t let us operate as efficiently as we needed to be.”
While it’s easy to only single out the third quarter struggles, Tennessee’s offensive questions even persisted amidst its red-hot start to the game. The Vols’ offense was humming while Joe Milton III completed 14 of his first 16 pass attempts for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
Milton performed well to start the game but what Josh Heupel and his offensive staff asked of their veteran quarterback wasn’t sophisticated. Milton threw a gorgeous 48-yard touchdown to Ramel Keyton and another 18-yard touchdown to Kaleb Webb, but most of the Vols’ passing success came on short screens or run-pass options.
The super senior’s touchdown to Webb was one of a select few completions that were in the intermediate passing game. Tennessee can execute the short and deep passing game better than they have and achieve more offensive success than they did last week at Florida. However, that simplistic offensive play calling severely limits what this offense is capable of doing.
And the fact that Tennessee doesn’t feel confident pushing the envelope in its passing game against UTSA or Austin Peay makes it hard to see major improvements coming to the passing game over the course of the season.
“Got to block well up front. Got to give the quarterback time. Got to go win one-on-ones,” Heupel said of what the offense needs to do to have sustained passing success. “Quarterback has to be accurate with the ball. I know that sounds redundant a little bit but at the end of the day that’s what we have to do.”
Maybe Tennessee’s passing game finds another gear. After all we’re just a third of the way through the regular season and college football is a sport where teams often radically improve over the course of the season.
But there’s more signs pointing to Tennessee’s passing offense having real limitations if not major deficiencies. How Heupel and offensive coordinator Joey Halzle work around it could be the difference in Tennessee taking a respectable step back from its 2022 campaign or free falling to a forgettable season.