KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Given the differences between Josh Heupel and Jeremy Pruitt, one couldn’t blame the 84,314 fans who trekked to Neyland Stadium on Thursday in search of something different.
Their pilgrimages were rewarded in a hurry.
On its first possession of the night, Tennessee marched 66 yards in less than three minutes, with Michigan transfer Joe Milton III sprinting into the checkerboards for the first touchdown in the Josh Heupel era.
Then, Tennessee moved even faster. A 67-yard, eight-play drive chewed 1:58 off the clock for a 14-0 lead, and all appeared well — until Rocky Top formed a plateau.
After racking up 159 yards of total offense in the first 15 minutes, the Vols managed just eight yards in the second frame. Meanwhile, Bowling Green turned two Tennessee punts into two field goals for a 14-6 halftime score.
But the Falcons' success didn’t last.
Fueled by a strong rushing attack and two quick drives to open the third quarter, Tennessee scored 24 unanswered points and ran a total of 88 plays for a 38-6 win over Bowling Green.
The victory puts Josh Heupel at 1-0 in his Tennessee career, propelling the Vols into next week's 'Johnny Majors Classic' against Pittsburgh.
“It’s Week One, Year One. We got a win. Enjoy it,” Heupel said. “I told the team, ‘You have to. It’s a hard game.’”
Rushing game trumps passing attack, at least in Week One
After Milton's first score, Tennessee’s new quarterback brought his fists across his chest to mimic Cam Newton’s “Superman” celebration.
But it was the Vols’ running back room that ultimately saved the day.
Jabari Small scored on a one-yard dive for Tennessee’s early two-score advantage, and the Vols rolled with the ground game on each of their next two trips to pay dirt.
Despite what appeared to be a poor read, Milton dodged defenders around the left end to put Tennessee ahead 21-6 before Tiyon Evans maneuvered 19 yards for a three-touchdown lead.
The final two scores came through the goalposts and the air. USC transfer Chase McGrath booted a 43-yard field goal for a 31-6 lead, and Cedric Tillman wrangled Milton’s lone touchdown toss of the night for a 38-6 advantage after the PAT.
Evans led the Vols with 116 yards on 16 carries and the lone score, while Small took 22 carries for 116 yards and his first-quarter touchdown. It was the first time since November of 2016 that Tennessee has featured multiple 100-yard rushers in the same game.
“I thought (Jabari and Tiyon) pressed the line of scrimmage, did a good job getting vertical,” Heupel said. “I thought they took care of the football well. Overall really pleased with their performance.”
Together, the pair averaged 5.2 yards per carry as Evans became the first Vol since Alvin Kamara to notch over 100 yards in his Tennessee debut.
The Vols also accumulated over 250 more rushing yards in the second half than they did in the first half, and they finished with almost 2.5 times as many rushing yards (471) as they did passing yards (145).
“I thought the run game operated efficiently,” Heupel said. “I thought the passing game was hit-and-miss. We’ll have to be a whole lot more efficient in the passing game after tonight.”
Milton, for his part, took 14 carries for 44 yards and kept the ball twice for those aforementioned keeper touchdowns.
Through the air, the former Wolverine finished the night 11 of 23 for 140 yards with one score after starting the night 9-of-11.
His 10th completion of the night did not come until the fourth quarter, and he overthrew Tillman twice before connecting with the senior wideout for the Vols’ final tally.
“A lot to learn from, a lot to clean up,” Milton said. “When you’ve got a guy like me that can do it all, it’s all about execution.”
Milton’s speediest receiver, Jalin Hyatt, hauled in four passes for 62 yards with almost half that accumulated on one 30-yard grab. Tillman finished with two receptions for 48 yards and the score.
The Vols’ offense coughed up two turnovers — one on a fumble from Milton on a blindside hit, and another during a handoff exchange after Hendon Hooker took over late.
Jackson shines as defense accounts for several triple-tackle nights
Defensively, Tennessee took care of business -- albeit not without a few struggles.
During the Vols’ flat second quarter, Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald threaded passes and found some lanes through the middle of the field.
But the Falcons' efforts weren't enough to overcome Theo Jackson and the Volunteer secondary.
Jackson led Tennessee with a whopping 11 tackles, six on solo attempts, and he had 2.5 tackles for loss with three break-ups.
Alontae Taylor finished with six stops in total, and and six more Vols accumulated at least three tackles apiece.
Moreover, Tennessee generated two sacks from the defensive line and held the Falcons to just 32 yards rushing. The two-sack mark is the same as what the Vols averaged through 10 games last season.
“I thought we played vertically disruptive and changed the line of scrimmage,” Heupel said. “First, second and third level operated pretty clean.”
As mentioned, Tennessee will take on Pittsburgh next week at Neyland Stadium. Kickoff against the Panthers is set for noon eastern on ESPN.
Cover photo courtesy of Jake Nichols