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Vols admit to needing wake-up call in Tennessee victory over Vanderbilt

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As Tennessee’s staff rushed from the press box to the field for halftime adjustments against Vanderbilt, one coach was heard to say: “I’m glad they woke us up.”

A few second-quarter skirmishes between the Vols and Commodores seemed to light a fire under UT, igniting Tennessee (8-4) to a convincing 48-24 victory over winless-in-SEC-play Vanderbilt (2-10) at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

“It got chippy for a little bit,” said UT coach Josh Heupel, who said his staff talked to the players about calming down during the game and at halftime.

Three players were cited for unsportsmanlike conduct during one melee, two Vols. Many more could have been penalitzed – or even ejected for fighting – as multiple punches were thrown.

Vandy coach Clark Lea was flagged for unsportsmnalike conduct for coming onto the field to argue, but it was hard to blame him, based on the ineptitude by the officials.

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On the first incident, Vandy was called for illegal procedure, but the officials didn’t step in to stop the play in time before UT’s Tyler Baron blasted Vandy quarterback AJ Swann. Baron could have been called for roughing the passer, even though the play didn’t count.

On the next snap, several Vols hammered Swann to the ground but that play didn’t count either because Vandy was called for delay of game. Yet the officials didn’t step in quickly enough to stop the action.

Lea went ballistic after the second hit, upset that UT had twice roughed up his quarterback and likely upset that the officials didn’t hastily shut down the plays.

That led to pushing and shoving and fists flying and Vandy players rushing onto the field to join the fray.

Vandy finally punted with 2:34 left in the half and Tennessee promptly drove 54 yards in nine plays, capped by quarterback Joe Milton’s 2-yard run.

By then, Tennessee led 31-10 and Vandy had awaken a not-too-inspired giant.

The second half was played without fireworks, unless you count what Milton did.

Tennessee’s sixth-year senior was terrific, completing 22 of 32 passses for 385 yards – most ever by a Vol against Vandy – and four touchdowns. He ran for two more scores.

Unofficially, he is only the third Vol to account for six touchdowns in a game, joining Erik Ainge (2007) and Jonathan Crompton (2009).

“I’m proud of his resiliency,” Heupel said of Milton. “He competed extremely well. He was really good throughout the course of the game.

“Smart decision making, accurate with the football, offensive line doing a good job of protection. A really special night.”

A career night for the much criticized quarterback.

“You go out with a bang,” said Milton, who shed a few tears Friday as he approached his last game at Neyland Stadium. “That’s a legacy I’m going to hold on to. It was amazing.”

Tennessee racked up a season high for passing yards (449) and surpassed 600 total yards (617) for the second time.

Heupel said he was proud of the seniors who stuck around the program after the 2020 season when Jeremy Pruitt was fired, the NCAA was investigating recruiting violations and Heupel was hired.

“They stayed here through some uncertainty and bought into the vision we had,” Heupel said. “This group, this team continues to fight.”

Milton wasn’t the only Vol with a big night. Jaylen Wright became UT’s first 1,000-yard back since Jalen Hurd in 2015. Wright had 75 yards on just 11 carries, a 6.8 per carry average.

The wide receivers were productive. Squirrel White had 10 catches for 110 yards. Ramel Keyton had four catches for 122 yards and two scores.

The tight ends got into the act as Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles each had a TD reception.

Tennessee came out throwing against Vandy, perhaps because the offensive line was decimated by injury. After having success through the air, UT ran with efficiency as three players averaged at least 6.8 yards per carry.

“I’ve never been a part of it as a player or coach, how it’s unfolded,” Heupel said of the offensive line injuries.

But that didn’t slow down UT’s offense agaisnt the SEC’s worst defense.

While some fans were disappointed with the 8-4 record after last year’s 11-2 campaign, UT has now recorded just four eight-win seasons since 2008  

Heupel was asked how UT fans should feel about an eight-win regular season.

“They should feel the way we feel – proud of the program,” Heupel said. “We’ve prepared the right way. We’ve had some disappointments but this group has never walked on the field not thinking we could win.

“I’m proud of where we started, where we’re at and where we continue to get to.”

And he was proud his team didn’t overlook a hapless Vandy team.

It didn’t hurt that Vandy poked the bear.

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