In a game where the stands were checkered orange and white, two of the most prolific play-callers in college football moved their offensive weapons across the field like a chess match.
Tennessee (4-3, 2-2 SEC) fell to No. 13 Ole Miss (5-1, 2-1 SEC) 31-26, but neither team found success on offense initially. Both Josh Heupel and Lane Kiffin’s offenses sputtered out of the gate with their only scores coming from miscues.
Ole Miss got stopped on their opening drive but took advantage of a botched punt return by Velus Jones Jr. They received the ball at the 11-yard line, and were able to sneak into the endzone on a score four plays later. Then, on the other end, Tennessee forced a safety and scored on their ensuing possession.
Kiffin was able to get his offense rolling first, though. Following the safety, Ole Miss scored on five of their next six possessions. Rebel quarterback and Heisman hopeful Matt Corral threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns while completing 55% of his passes. He led all players in rushing by a wide margin with 195 yards on the ground on 30 attempts.
Corral’s biggest impact with his legs came on third downs, though. Five of the Rebel’s 11 third down conversions were picked up through a Corral rush.
Sometimes, the Rebels played the numbers game by running quarterback draw plays. Ole Miss receivers took the Volunteer secondary away from the action, which created a blocking mismatch against Tennessee’s front seven. Other times, it was a broken play that Corral took advantage of, scrambling out of the pocket for big gains on the ground. Both situations caused Vol defensive coordinator Tim Banks to make adjustments.
“We just tried to keep a couple more in the box, try to play a little bit more man coverage,” Vol safety Trevon Flowers said. “We knew (Corral) was going to run the ball, so that was the focus, trying to contain him.”
Tennessee struggled on third down. The Vols went three-and-out on three of their first four drives, and started the game converting only on two of seven third down attempts.
This all changed in the last moments of the first half. In their final first-half drive and for the duration of the second half, the script flipped. The Vols converted eight of their 11 third down attempts. A main reason for this improvement was the play from Vol quarterback Hendon Hooker.
Hooker started out slow but found his footing as the game went on. The dual-threat quarterback found success through the air and ground. He finished the game with 233 yards and one touchdown on 17-for-26 passing, including key throws to extend drives for the Vols late in the game.
Similar to Kiffin’s schemes to get Corral going on the ground, Heupel dialed up plays for Hooker. He used his speed and elusiveness to pick up a team-high 108 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. This ended up being costly, though, as Hooker went down with a right leg injury after a run on the final drive of the game. Heupel provided an update on the injury during his Monday press conference.
“We’ll see as the week unfolds where we end up with (Hooker),” said Heupel. “I don’t think it’s a long-term injury. His status for the week, we’ll find out as we go through.”
Star offensive lineman Cade Mays was also injured at the beginning of the game. This forced Heupel to play backups on an already thin offensive line. This played a part in the five sacks and 10 tackles for loss the offense gave up. Heupel is optimistic Mays’ injury is not serious, however.
“(Mays) was moving around in the locker room tonight,” Heupel said. “I would assume he’s going to be ready to play for the next one.”
With star running back Tiyon Evans inactive, Heupel had to look to another backup in Jabari Small for offensive output. Small took advantage of this opportunity taking 21 of the team’s 26 handoffs for 92 yards and a touchdown. He also had two rushes of over 20 yards to propel the offense down the field.
Next week, Tennessee travels to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 4 Alabama where they will face another Heisman caliber quarterback in Bryce Young and a much better defense. A quick offensive start will be essential if the Vols want to take down the Tide for the first time in 15 years.
Edited by Christian Knox