KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — They won’t all be that fun, but game one of the Josh Heupel era turned out to be one big party around a 38-6 Tennessee romp of hapless Bowling Green.
It started outside Neyland Stadium on a glorious sun splashed afternoon that saw the return of tailgating and the famed Vol Walk for the first time in two years. Once inside Heupel led the Vols through the T as 84,314, many of whom weren’t in the stadium last year when capacity was only 25 percent due to COVID-19, gave them a full throated welcome.
Those fans had plenty to cheer about. Tim Banks’ defense forced a quick three and out, and Michigan transfer Joe Milton stepped into Heupel’s offense and quickly went to work. Snapping the ball routinely between eight and 12 seconds into the play clock, Milton led Tennessee 66 yards down the field, capped by his four-yard keeper for the touchdown. The 12 play drive took just 2:59.
After another three and out, Milton and the offense efficiently drove the field again, this time going 67 yards on eight plays in just over 2:00. Jabari Small’s one-yard touchdown gave Tennessee its first 14-point first quarter since 2019, and it happened in just over 8:00.
It was fast and it was easy against a Bowling Green defense that ranked 117th in the nation last year when the Falcons lost all five games they played. But that’s how it should be when you’re Tennessee playing a team from the MAC.
Milton demonstrated why he was Heupel’s pick for the quarterback job, completing nine of 11 passes for 95 yards and running for another 22 yards in the first quarter. He ran the offense efficiently, showed off a strong arm and the ability to extend plays with his legs, finishing the night with 184 total yards, two touchdowns rushing and a 40-yard strike to Cedric Tillman in the fourth quarter.
Milton also showed the inconsistencies that plagued his time at Michigan. He was slow in his decision making at times, overthrew Tillman twice on would-be touchdowns, and took three sacks, fumbling on one of them.
It didn’t help that Jalen Hyatt dropped a couple of Milton’s lasers, or that the offensive line failed to get the same push it started the game with in the second quarter after starting center Cooper Mays left with an injury. The Vols managed just two first downs the rest of the half as a Bowling Green program looking for its first win since mid-2019 cut the lead to 14-6 on a pair of long Nate Needham field goals.
Tennessee reestablished its dominance at the start of the third quarter with a 72-yard touchdown drive in which all eight plays came on the ground. The O-Line carved out big holes for Small, who had runs of seven, 17 and five yards, and Tiyon Evans, who delivered chunk plays of 21 and 11 yards to set up Milton’s second rushing TD of the night from the one.
Evans increased the lead to 28-6 with a 19-yard scamper a couple possessions later set up by a pass interference in the endzone.
The passing game needs some work from Milton and the receivers to reach its full potential. And the offensive line needs Mays back healthy for an important game next week against Pitt, not to mention a full SEC slate.
But all in all Heupel’s Vols did what they were supposed to do against the outmanned Falcons. They racked up 326 rushing yards and held the Falcons to just 32 yards on 23 carries. Tennessee’s 38 points scored Thursday is a total it eclipsed only once during last year’s 3-7 disappointment.
It all made for a fun night, and a 1-0 start that gives Heupel, Milton and Tennessee something to build on. With Big Orange Nation back to cheer them on.