Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Football)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The No. 12 Tennessee Volunteers obliterated the Virginia Cavaliers 49-13 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville to begin the 2023 season. The Vols did so in front of 69,507 fans, the largest crowd in Nissan Stadium’s history.
“Everybody understands how important the mid-state area is,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “Not just our fan base and our alumni, but also on the recruiting side of it. It was a very unique opportunity to open it up here in Nashville.”
The Vols came out of the gate firing. Jaylen Wright finished the opening drive with 50 yards from scrimmage. After a brief slowdown in the red zone, Joe Milton connected with Dylan Sampson on 4th and 5 for a 9-yard touchdown, putting Tennessee ahead by seven.
“I expect to do things like that,” said Jaylen Wright, who averaged nine yards per carry in the game. “I put in the work in the offseason, and when you work hard it pays off.”
The Cavaliers had a chance to get on the board early. After their first three and out, Virginia stuffed Tennessee on 4th and 1 deep in its own territory. However, the Vols defense held strong for three plays, and Cavaliers kicker Will Bettridge missed a field goal wide right.
Surprisingly, the best thing Tennessee had going for it in the opening quarter was its defense. The front seven recorded five tackles for loss in the first quarter. The movement was spearheaded by defensive end James Pearce, who had two sacks in the quarter.
“It always feels great to be productive and fly around on the field with your brothers,” Pearce said. “We were getting after the quarterback on third down. They needed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, so we just needed to pass rush.”
It took Joe Milton about a quarter and a half to settle in. On one three and out, he underthrew Squirrel White, overthrew Bru McCoy, and threw another ball too high for Ramel Keyton.
“There were a couple of plays where some guys took a play off,” Milton said. “With the offense that we have, we don’t have time to take a play off. We’ve got to keep going regardless of the position we’re in.”
Late in the second quarter, The Vols manufactured a 90-yard scoring drive that took off with a 41-yard connection between Joe Milton and Ramel Keyton. Milton then stiff-armed his way to the 3-yard line, and Dylan Sampson took care of the rest with a rush touchdown up the middle, putting the Vols up 14.
Virginia would not stay quiet on offense late in the half. An over the shoulder reception by Malachi Fields and a 17-yard completion to Malik Washington set up a 30-yard field goal for Will Bettridge, making it a 14-3 game.
Tennessee followed this with a masterful execution of a 75-yard two-minute drill. Effective run plays from Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright with some completions to Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy sprinkled in got Tennessee to the Virginia 1-yard line. A goal line jumbo package pushed Joe Milton into the end zone, putting Tennessee ahead 21-3 with seconds to play in the first half.
The Vols quickly got off the field on defense to start the second half. What followed was a 77-yard drive.Tennessee finished up the drive with a 1-yard quarterback keeper to the right side of the end zone by Joe Milton, extending the lead to 25.
Virginia turned the ball over on downs on its following possession. A Wesley Walker sack gave Tennessee possession at Virginia’s 34.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I feel like we had a pretty good day today,” Walker said about the defense. “We expect to come out and dominate, zero points scored is what we expected.”
Jabari Small got most of the work in on that short drive for Tennessee, but Dylan Sampson capped it off with a 2-yard somersault into the end zone, his third score of the day.
The Vols led 35-3, but the Cavaliers manufactured a 75 yard scoring drive of their own. Virginia ran for 60 yards on that drive, including a 22-yard run from Kobe Pace and a 17-yard touchdown run from Perris Jones, making it a 35-10 contest.
The teams exchanged punts, but Dee Williams brought Virginia’s punt all the way to its 27. The short drive continued into the fourth quarter. It was capped off by Joe Milton’s first passing touchdown of the season, an 11-yard pass to Jacob Warren in the center of the end zone.
“Dee’s dynamic, you see him on all four of our special teams units,” Josh Heupel said about Dee Williams. “He’s an elite returner, and he changes the way the game is played because of the field position.”
Virginia punted on its next possession and Dee Williams once again did damage, returning the punt to Virginia’s 40. As the next possession began, loud chants of “Nico!” cascaded from the crowd as freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava took the field for the first time in his Tennessee career.
“He was calm, cool, and he had a great demeanor,” Josh Heupel said about Nico Iamaleava. “He handled all the pre snap stuff the right way, and he’s athletic enough to be used in the run game.”
The Vols’ short drive ended with a 3-yard Dylan Sampson touchdown run. Sampson’s four touchdowns are the most by a Tennessee running back in a single game since John Kelly did it against Georgia Tech in 2017.
“The whole offensive line was doing a good job being physical.” Sampson said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
The Vols will take the field next Saturday in Neyland Stadium for the first time in 2023 against Austin Peay. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. ET and the game will air on SEC Network Plus.