For Tennessee, the best thing to happen on Saturday was a visit from Tennessee Tech.
The Golden Eagles were overmatched before they exited their locker room. The Vols took advantage with a 56-0 victory before an announced crowd of 80,053 at Neyland Stadium.
UT was more intent on upgrading its performance, though, than merely affirming Tech’s status.
While their day’s work had to be assessed in the context of the competition, the Vols got some things done. Conversely, there’s a lot of work still to do.
Turnovers: After getting none in the first two games, the Vols gathered four interceptions. Tech’s only threat to throw the football downfield came via trick plays. The secondary adjusted accordingly, sitting on pass routes and breaking to the football.
The plays served to answer a question UT coach Josh Heupel has fielded regularly: What does Tennessee need to do to start creating turnovers?
“Eventually you keep playing hard enough and good things happen,” Heupel said.
Linebacker Solon Page III took his interception 31 yards for a touchdown. Cornerback Alontae Taylor nearly did the same. No matter, his interception was the sweetest of the four. The senior cornerback announced on Friday that if he had a pick on Saturday, everyone would get two free cookies at both Moonshine Mountain Cookies locations.
A starving fan base appreciated the gesture.
Penalties: After being whistled for 13 infractions last week against Pitt, the Vols couldn’t have started much worse against Tech. A holding penalty erased the majority of Velus Jones Jr.’s 89-yard kickoff return to start the game.
The Vols spent the game’s duration cleaning up their act, however. They were whistled for only two more penalties thereafter.
Hendon Hooker: The quarterback transfer from Virginia Tech got his first UT start in place of injured Joe Milton III. The statistics spoke highly on his behalf. Hooker was 17-for-25 passing for 199 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 64 yards and another score.
But he missed some makeable throws down the field. And he fumbled in the second quarter after taking a hard hit on an 18-yard dash. Hooker’s running style enables him to elude tacklers. It also makes him susceptible to turnovers like Saturday’s.
Fourth down: The Vols were four-for-five on the down. One of the conversions resulted in Hooker’s 45-yard TD pass to Jones in the second quarter.
The Vols took some chances early because they whiffed on third down. They failed to convert on six chances before halftime.
The conversion rate, in part, reflected UT’s spotty running game. The Vols averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which arguably wasn’t good enough against Tech.
“In the run game, just in general, there’s more out there for us,” Heupel said. “We can be cleaner up front in blocking it. Running backs being cleaner in how they deliver the blocks and hitting the hole the right way. We’ve got to make a stride there too.”
The one-sided result didn’t distort Heupel’s assessment of his team.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We are where we are.”
All things considered, perhaps the next best thing to happen to Tennessee on Saturday was Florida – next week’s opponent – opening SEC play a week earlier than UT by playing Alabama.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.