Josh Heupel won a game with defense and special teams for the first time in his career. Emphasize the special teams. Tennessee Football missed a field goal against the Texas A&M Aggies, and that was still a strength for the Vols in their 20-13 win at Neyland Stadium Saturday.
Dee Williams ran back a punt for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Vols their first lead in the game, putting them up 14-10. They held onto that lead the rest of the way. However, the punt return by Williams actually wasn’t the play of the game. The previous punt that set that return up was.
For context, Tennessee Football was trailing 10-7 and had another drive stall at midfield. At this point, it was unclear if the Vols would ever actually take the lead, but they were winning the field position battle thanks to solid punting by Jackson Ross and horrible punting by Nik Constantinou of A&M.
After this drive stalled, Ross nailed a punt that pinned A&M on the half-yard line. The Aggies were unable to get anything on three plays, and they had to punt from the back of the end zone. Heupel then brilliantly played back for the return while everybody expected the block.
The brilliance of playing for the return was it would avoid a roughing the punter, the Vols were already likely to get the ball in field goal range given Constantinou’s punting, and they could focus on their elite return specialist in Williams making a play. A&M was caught off guard, wasn’t prepared for punt coverage, and it worked to perfection.
All of that was set up, tough, by Tennessee Football being able to pin them inside the half-yard line from Ross’ punt. As a result, believe it or not, the punt itself, not the return on the ensuing drive, was the turning point in the game. Without it, the Vols don’t walk away victorious.