On Saturday, Josh Heupel brought Tennessee football into its new era. The Vols had an incredible win at the Kentucky Wildcats, and they did it by putting points on the board early. Actually, they did it very early.
Hendon Hooker completed a screen pass to JaVonta Payton, which he took 75 yards for a touchdown, on the first play from scrimmage in the game. UT then found Velus Jones Jr. for a 72-yard touchdown three plays into its second offensive possession. Heupel encouraged the team to strike early, and did they ever.
The touchdowns set the tone, but Vol fans know the pattern. Rocky Top has been starting the past few games off very strong. They only trailed the Florida Gators 17-14 and the Alabama Crimson Tide 21-14 at halftime and led both teams and the Ole Miss Rebels in the second quarter. Nobody was oblivious to how things panned out after the second half with this team.
This time, Tennessee football did a good job strengthening its second half momentum. One stat for the Vols in this game is the most impressive and concerning stat at they same time: they had the ball for only 13 minutes and 52 seconds.
Heupel still managed to pull off the upset despite, or perhaps because of, that time of possession difference. Imagine what would happen if the Vols maintained long possessions. Maybe Kentucky actually would have pulled away had that happened. Could scoring quickly be UT’s calling card?
The most plays the Vols ran on any of their touchdown drives were seven. That’s truly remarkable. It took Kentucky over 14 plays to score a touchdown on their first drive, and they had three drives with 10 plays or more. UT’s only double-digit drive was a 12-play drive that netted no points thanks a missed field goal.
This fast-pace tone that Heupel has set for the Volunteers is an incredible strength. It’s something we haven’t seen in the past and is exactly the progression that Tennessee football needed as a program going forward.
Fans want to see the program take risks. They want to see new and unique components added to the game that will have a dramatic effect in the direction Rocky Top goes in the future. Heupel is doing just that.
With all of that being said, it was not by any means a flawless performance. The Vols had two fumbles, losing one of them, and allowed five sacks once again. These sacks are unacceptable. Hooker and the offensive line are at fault for them, but they can’t make the same mistakes next week as they get set to host the Georgia Bulldogs.
Could this be the curse with Heupel’s tempo? Mistakes may be par for the course given how fas the offense goes. However, they must limit the turnovers, penalties and protection breakdowns if they are going to take that next step.
Moving onto Georgia, Tennessee football needs to be ready to go and strike throughout the entire game. You’ve got this tone-setting offense against a historically great defense. Do the Vols have the system to finally find some vulnerabilities in UGA? Something tells me that they do, but that’s for another story. Stay tuned for more optimism about this game Saturday.