By Jimmy Hyams
MIAMI – Coach Josh Heupel said Tennessee’s future is “freaky bright.’’
The present isn’t bad.
Joe Milton fired three touchdown passes, Squirrel White had a breakout game and linebacker Aaron Beasley was beastly as Tennessee (11-2) routed Clemson (11-3) 31-14 Friday night in the Orange Bowl to cap a splendid season.
Two years ago, Tennessee was coming off a 3-7 season, fired coach Jeremy Pruitt and faced 18 major recruiting violations.
But Heupel waved his magical wand and got the program turned around much quicker than anyone could have imagined.
This season, the Vols beat Florida, beat LSU, beat Alabama, then clocked Clemson.
That’s wins over three teams that won a national championship within the past five years.
Heupel did it despite, before last season, losing over 40 players to the portal or to retirement or to being let out of their National Letter of Intent
Against Clemson, Tennessee’s Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, Hendon Hooker, was injured (torn ACL) and couldn’t play. The Vols’ top two receivers, Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman opted out.
And the Vols didn’t have their defensive leader, linebacker Jeremy Banks.
But they had defensive coordinator Tim Banks, and proved to be much more valuable.
Tim Banks dialed up a variety of blitzes and pressured Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik into several errant throws, especially when the Tigers got inside the UT 40-yard line.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley, who said before the game he would return to UT because he was still learning to play linebacker, was a defensive stalwart. He recorded two sacks and four tackles for loss in the first half alone.
A defense that struggled mightily in a loss to South Carolina late in the season, was terrific against Clemson, holding the ACC champions out of the end zone for three quarters.
Tennessee won 11 games for the first time since 2001 and for only the ninth time in school history.
The Tigers gained 484 yards and penetrated into UT territory 10 times, but missed three field goals, botched a fake field goal, threw an interception and failed to convert twice on fourth down inside UT territory.
Hard to imagine that Clemson ran 101 plays to Tennessee’s 66, yet got whipped soundly.
Vols quarterback Joe Milton, replacing the popular and productive Hooker, was named the Orange Bowl MVP, and he didn’t even have to throw an orange 110 yards. He compleed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He had scoring strikes to Bru McCoy of 16 yards, Squirrel White of 14 yards and Ramel Keyton of 46 yards.
While Milton was named the MVP, it could easily have gone to White, the diminutive true freshmen who was trying to fill the shoes of Hyatt and Tillman.
White, generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, caught nine passes for 108 yards and one score. He was the target of four of Milton’s first five throws.
The MVP also could have gone to Beasley, who finished with 12 stops and harassed Klubnik throughout the game.
Klubnik, the talented freshman who had 279 yards and three touchdowns in the ACC championship game win over North Carolina, was 30 of 54 for 320 yards, but he threw two interceptions and was ineffective when the Tigers got inside the UT 40-yard line. He also ran 20 times (he had 22 runs all season) for 51 yards. He had 74 run and pass plays – eight more than Tennessee.
Clemson had drives that ended at the UT 27, 35, 32, 22, 15, 43, 13, 23, 31 and 15.
The Tigers finally scored a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the game on a 4-yard scramble by Klubnik.
But Tennessee responded with a 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Milton’s 46-yarder to Keyton.
Then the defense made two stops to seal the deal.
Tennessee senior tight end Jacob Warren said growing up, he always dreamed about playing against Clemson. To beat the Tigers in the Orange Bowl was a special treat.
Young, who said before the game he was committed to playing so he could cap an outstanding season, said after the win he came close to opting out to focus on the NFL draft.
What was the deciding factor?
“I prayed about it,’’ he said.
And he didn’t want to abandon his teammates in a New Year’s Six bowl game and he didn’t want to abandon the program that gave him a chance two years ago after he toiled as a store manager for Doller General and attended Georgia Military College, which didn’t play a game in 2020 due to Covid.
Hooker, who had surgery Dec. 13, joined his teammates during practice, helping any way he could. He gave advice to Milton, attended practices, sat in meetings.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team,’’ said Hooker, who committed to Tennessee in January 2021 just after a three-win season and just before Pruitt was fired.
He sat in a locker-room chair, his leg extended and supported by a knee brace, and bragged about his teammates.
If not for Hooker, Tennessee wouldn’t have won 11 games this year.
If not for Milton, Tennessee might not have won the Orange Bowl.
If not for the defense, the Vols might had ended the season on a sour note.
But that wasn’t the case.
After the one-sided win over Clemson, Heupel was about asked his future plans.
“Don’t I get to enjoy this victory?’’ he asked
Yes indeed. And you can enjoy a splendid season as well.