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Front Page - Friday, October 8, 2021

Vols find their running game, face another test with SC

Tiyon Evans rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns at Missouri. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

Josh Heupel revealed the Tennessee game plan days before the Vols took the field against Missouri, explaining “the secret behind the sauce is really the run game for us.”

The Vols gave proof to concept in a dominating victory at Missouri that provided Tennessee fans with a glimpse of what was promised when Heupel was hired in January.

Tennessee rushed for 458 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown run by Tiyon Evans, to defeat Missouri 62-24 at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.

If anyone blinked, they may have missed UT scoring a touchdown in a performance Heupel called “the best that we’ve been since I’ve been here.”

The Vols (3-2, 1-1 SEC) scored on their first nine drives of the game, including all seven in the first half. Tennessee had already registered 425 yards by halftime, including 275 on the ground. The rushing yards marked the first time Tennessee eclipsed 400 since 1994.

The Vols never punted. They scored their most points since scoring 63 against Missouri in 2016, and accumulated their most total yards (683) since registering 684 against Texas A&M in 2016.

It was a fitting way for Heupel to earn his first SEC win as a head coach, and it came at a place where he was previously the offensive coordinator.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Heupel says. “We’re just scratching the surface of what we are capable of. There’s a whole lot more for us in our growth.”

The Vols have several more chances to display their progress in the coming weeks. After hosting a beatable South Carolina squad Saturday at 11 a.m. EDT at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee plays Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia.

Against Missouri (2-3, 0-2), the Vols were facing a struggling team with one of the worst rush defenses in the nation. The Tigers ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing an average of 269 rushing yards per game. Tennessee exceeded that mark in the first half alone, and pushed Missouri to the basement by the end.

The Vols salted away the win with the first career touchdown for walk-on running back Marcus Pierce.

“The run game is really where everything starts for us,” Heupel explained. “One, it’s important to just set the tone of the football game. I think it’s really hard on your offensive line if you drop back all the time. (It) sets up all of your play-action passes as well, which is a big part of what we do.”

The offensive onslaught came fast and furious in Columbia, with Tennessee’s first five touchdown drives taking less than two minutes. That included the 92-yard burst by Evans, which was the third-longest rushing touchdown in program history.

UT’s offensive lineman admired Evans’ speed from a distance as he reached the end zone.

“I used to try to (chase after running backs) on big touchdowns in high school, but that was probably about 40 pounds ago,” UT redshirt junior offensive lineman Ollie Lane says. “I made it down there, though. I celebrated with everyone. But then I may have walked over, sat on the bench and took a few deep breaths.”

Hendon Hooker started at quarterback for the Vols against Mizzou, one week after suffering an undisclosed injury against Florida. The Virginia Tech transfer finished 15 of 19 for 225 yards and three touchdowns while running for 80 yards and a touchdown.

After a few weeks of not revealing the starter until game day, Heupel announced early that Hendon will be back behind center against South Carolina.

“I think as much as anything, great comfort and understanding in what we’re doing,” Heupel notes when asked about Hooker’s improvement. “The tempo, he’s been really in control of what’s going on at the line of scrimmage. Been really good with his eyes and that’s allowed him to be really decisive with the football.”

UT treated Missouri like a lower-level FCS opponent, which is an improvement over past seasons when the Vols often struggled to put away teams they should beat.

It offered a blueprint for what Heupel’s uptempo offense can look like in the future once he can recruit and replenish UT’s roster.

“I’d say this is the first time we’ve really played together the whole four quarters as a team,” says Evans, who finished with a career-high 156 yards rushing and three touchdowns. “If we can continue to do that, we can continue to have great outcomes.”

Although they celebrated the win, the Vols were cautious not to let the success give them a false sense of satisfaction. They know there are much bigger challenges to come in the next few weeks.

“We’re only as good as we are next Saturday (at 11 a.m.) against South Carolina. I think our kids are buying into that,” Heupel says. “That’s why our preparation has gotten better. Not where it needs to be, but it’s gotten better.

“And if we’re consistent with our growth in that, then we’ve got a chance.”