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The Josh Heupel era at Tennessee began on Thursday night with a 38-6 victory over Bowling Green in front of a raucous Rocky Top crowd at Neyland Stadium.
The victory served as a positive start to the season, but also provided moments of inconsistency, especially in the offense as Heupel said in his post-game press conference.
“I thought the run game operated relatively efficiently. A couple times we weren’t on the right hat. But I thought the pass game was really hit and miss for us tonight. Some of that was quarterback decision-making, being accurate with the football,” Heupel said. “Some of it is wide receivers being on the same page. Couple opportunities to catch it and we don’t. We’re going to have to be a whole lot more efficient in the pass game than we were tonight.”
Redshirt junior Michigan transfer quarterback Joe Milton made his first start in orange, coming off a Wolverines’ career in which he played in 13 games over three seasons, completing 56.6 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
Milton’s night started strong, but quickly waned in the second quarter, guided by questionable decision-making that contributed to the Volunteers entering halftime up only 14-6. Heupel said he saw that much of Milton’s game needs to be cleaned up moving forward.
“Some of it was what (Bowling Green) was doing, where we felt like we had an opportunity in some drop-eight coverages,” Heupel said. “There were some times I didn’t like his decision-making. There were some things that were open, open down the middle of the football field that he doesn’t recognize. There are some things that we have to clean up. Offensively we’re going to have to clean up some things too. At the same time, there were some positives coming out of it as well.”
Milton would finish 11-of-23 for 140 yards and a touchdown through the air, while adding 44 yards on the ground with two more trips to the pay dirt with his legs.
Among the positives was Tennessee’s defense, which rose to the occasion and shut down the Falcons’ offense all night. Bowling Green converted just 2-of-14 on third down and rushed for just 32 yards on a measly 1.4 yards per attempt. Huepel praised his defense and lauded the effort that they played with.
“I thought we played vertically, disrupted and changed the line of scrimmage really pretty consistently throughout the night. The second quarter you saw them have a couple drives, extend some things, hit some plays,” Heupel said. “A couple plays with three-level passes that we’ve got to clean up. But for most of the night I thought first, second and third level operated pretty clean, efficiently, hatted things up the right way. Communicated really well. And as much as anything played with great effort and strain.”
With the win, the former UCF head coach improves to 29-8 for his career. With a win under his belt in his first game with the Volunteers, Heupel said that it’s a journey, and it will continue next Saturday at home against Pittsburgh at Noon.
“It got to the point, and I said it leading up to it, we had to go play a game. You find out a whole lot of good. You find out some things you have to get a whole lot better on,” Heupel said. “That’s on the field, that’s off. It’s all of us together. This is a 12-week journey, right? This is Week 1, Year 1. I told the guys enjoy it tonight. It’s been seven months of hard work.
“At the same time, we can be a whole lot better. And we typically do (improve). If you approach it the right way, coaches will say week 1 to week 2 is the opportunity for your biggest improvement, I don’t think that’s the only time you can make those strides,” Heupel said. “You certainly have an opportunity to deal with the reality of who you are and where you were deficient that night and where you can get a whole lot better. I believe our kids are going to come back in the building on Saturday and be excited about getting back to work and getting a whole lot better.”