(I do love this photo.)
The two biggest questions coming into the Orange Bowl surrounded Tennessee’s uncertainty at quarterback and on defense. Both looked great against Vanderbilt, but Clemson – both by virtue of its #7 ranking and its name – would be another test entirely.
In winning 31-14, both Joe Milton and the Vol defense did more than enough. But the way the possessions played out made it feel a bit different than what we’re used to seeing. Tennessee punted eight times, and Clemson had, you know, 123572148 drives into Tennessee territory.
But, as usual, the story of the game is best told play-for-play. And for both Joe Milton and Tennessee’s defense, the results look even better compared to what we’ve seen before.
Joe Milton vs Clemson & Non-Hendon Hooker Games at UT
Tough acts to follow here aren’t always what they appear; we already know that from Peyton Manning handing off to Tee Martin. But no matter what Joe Milton or any Tennessee quarterback does in the next few years, our appreciation for Hendon Hooker should only grow.
Against Clemson, Joe Milton was 19-of-28 for 251 yards, 9.0 yards per attempt. We’re already spoiled on the “no interceptions” part; Milton added three touchdowns for good measure.
In yards per attempt, Hooker had an amazing ability to shine brightest on the biggest stages. He crossed 9+ yards per attempt 11 times against power five competition the last two years, including seven times against ranked foes:
Hendon Hooker YPA vs Ranked Teams
- 21 Kentucky: 15.8
- 22 Alabama: 12.8
- 22 Florida: 12.5
- 21 Alabama: 10.1
- 22 Kentucky: 9.8
- 21 Florida: 9.6
- 21 Ole Miss: 9.0
While the 2021 Kentucky game was an insane example of contrasting styles, it’s Hooker’s ability to be at his very, very best against our two biggest rivals that should be remembered most here. There will be plenty of opportunities to come back to this point, especially as he prepares for the NFL Draft.
Maybe every quarterback will start putting up numbers like this in Josh Heupel’s offense at Tennessee; if so, great! But don’t discount what Joe Milton did against Clemson just because it’s not what Hendon Hooker did against Florida and Alabama.
Before Heupel, how often did Tennessee quarterbacks throw for 9+ yards per attempt against ranked teams?
Jarrett Guarantano did it against Auburn in 2018 (10.3). Josh Dobbs did it against Florida in 2016 (10.0). And, in the post-Fulmer era, that’s it.
Hitting 9+ yards per attempt overall from 2009-2020 was rare; I count just 15 times it happened vs power five competition in those 12 seasons. For Milton to have done it against Clemson’s defense with essentially the 2023 wide receiver corps? That’s very good news.
Yards Per Play Allowed & Clemson’s Offense
The news is indeed good on the other side of the ball as well. Clemson’s 484 total yards came on 101 total plays. That’s 4.79 yards per play.
How does that compare to Tennessee’s defensive performances this season?
In yards per play allowed vs power five competition, Tennessee’s defense looks like this:
- Kentucky 3.25
- Vanderbilt 3.30
- Clemson 4.79
- LSU 4.86
- Pittsburgh 5.0
- Missouri 5.56
- Georgia 6.24
- Florida 6.83
- Alabama 6.86
- South Carolina 7.97
That’s pretty good, especially compared to the way it looked two games earlier. And for Clemson’s offense on the entire year? The 4.79 yards per play they gained against UT’s defense represented their second-lowest total of the year, behind the 4.32 they had at Notre Dame. And against power five competition, their season-high total was the 6.88 they had against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, with Cade Klubnik doing most of the work.
So for both Joe Milton and Tennessee’s defense, performances that might’ve felt like they had room for improvement look really, really good when put into context. The Vol defense was as good as anyone against a Clemson offense coming off its best game. And Joe Milton was as good through the air as just about anyone not named Hendon Hooker against a ranked foe.
The future is bright, in part because the Orange Bowl looks even brighter.