It’s just hard to know what to expect, at least for me. What’s an appropriate level of cynicism after all these years? What are healthy boundaries around our hearts: still beating orange blood, but hey, our doctor said to take it easy?
Even after last week. And even after last week set up this week as a gatekeeper of sorts: just win it, by any form or fashion, and six wins are there for the taking. A month of opportunity on the other side. Just avoid the letdown. Just find a way to win. Just.
Turns out, ain’t much just about this team.
Tennessee was efficient: 14 plays, 66 yards to open, converting three times on 3rd-and-3-or-less. Tennessee was explosive: a nice playcall got Velus Jones 15 yards on the first snap of the next series, then they lulled Carolina’s defense to the right before throwing back left, 39 yards to a w-i-d-e open JaVonta Payton.
Carolina’s offense has struggled all year, so a 14-0 lead felt huge. But, to their credit, here came the Gamecocks, gashing the defense to 1st-and-Goal at the 1. Then they went backwards. Then they got cute.
What happened after Jaylen McCullough’s interception is the best sequence of football I’ve seen from Tennessee this season:
- Hooker to Tillman for 20 yards
- Hooker run for 8 yards
- Evans run for 10 yards
- Hooker to Velus for 31 yards
- Hooker run for 11 yard TD
- Total drive: 5 plays, 80 yards, 1:18
What was one yard away from a 14-7 game was also 78 seconds away from a 21-0 hole. Then Carolina graciously fumbled their next snap, and the Vols scored on 3rd-and-7. Two drives later, the Vols converted 3rd-and-8, then Tiyon Evans went 45 yards on the next snap.
Remember last year, when the Vols went 1-of-11 on third down at South Carolina? Today: 12-of-17. That puts the Vols at 40-of-81 on the year, absurdly close to breaking 50%.
Also impressive: the way Tennessee is diverse in the passing game. After throwing to the tight end at a historic rate through the first two Saturdays, wide receivers caught 16 of 17 passes today. Velus Jones and Cedric Tillman remain threats all over the field, with JaVonta Payton now rocking nine catches for 216 yards (24 per catch!) for 4 touchdowns.
So we’re up 38-7 at halftime and mostly begging Ole Miss to hang on in their game. Then the Vols opened the second half with four straight punts, starting with a pair of three-and-outs.
One difference from last week: Carolina got home a lot in this sequence. The Vols ran it 11 times in 17 plays (64.7%) en route to those four punts, with the six passing plays resulting in three sacks. Carolina’s defense was solid coming in: much better than Mizzou’s, but better than Ole Miss’s too.
Still, credit Tennessee’s defense: without the fake punt, the Gamecocks finished with just 13 points offensively. And when they turned Carolina away on fourth down, the Vols did respond with a great run by Hendon Hooker to set up the final touchdown of the day.
Hooker was on pace early to vastly eclipse the 22 passes per game he attempts coming in. Then in the second half, sacks and score left him with…23. But he hit 17 of those (73.9%) for 225 yards (9.8 ypa) for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Accurate, explosive, and clean, again.
It’ll get dirtier now: depending on what Kentucky does with LSU, Georgia, and Mississippi State, the Vols may face four ranked opponents in a row. But we’ll face them with our orange hearts beating a little louder; especially so next Saturday night, in what will be the most anticipated home game since Alabama five years ago. There will still be nerves, especially with so little depth. There will still be caution, especially because we’ve been down for so long.
There’s always hope; that’s why we’re here. But today, there was just joy. Unexpected, unfiltered joy.
There will be a lot of emotions this week. We’ll get to all of them.
But the Vols enter it with more optimism than we thought we’d see this season. Full credit to Josh Heupel and this team: so far, these guys are a delightful surprise.
Now let’s see how much fun we can really have.