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A New Twist: Tennessee Defense checkerboards the Aggies 20-13
by Tom Mabry, Knox Daily Sun UT Football Writer
October 15, 2023, 12:39 p.m.

ut vols beat texas aggies

The last time that Texas A&M played at Neyland Stadium was during the COVID-19 season when the Aggies thumped Tennessee 34-13. The score really didn’t matter as that game loss was subject to the “Jeremy Pruitt Vacate Mess” except that the final tally indicated the dominance of A&M. In 2023, the Aggies scored an equal point total to that of the Vols in 2020. The difference now is that a defense has arrived on Rocky Top.

The 101,315 Orange and White Checkerboard Fans cheered them on.

A&M was predicted to provide the stout defense for the windy Saturday CBS afternoon game, together with an improved offense spearheaded by a two headed monster known colloquially as a “Fisher - Motorcycle Petrino.” The Monster was sent packing on to Halloween as Tennessee’s much maligned defense rose to the occasion and provided enough mayhem to make up for a lackluster offense in a 20-13 win.

ut vols beat texas aggies

The effort was fitting for Eric Berry Day, one of Tennessee’s all-time best defenders who was honored at halftime. Players respond to a player with Berry’s rep as his accomplishments were shown often on the Big Screen during the game. Most likely it’s not a coincidence that the defense had its finest hours with Eric in the House.

The game started for the Vols offense much like the remainder of the contest: a squandered opportunity. After a Jackson Ross punt, A&M went 80 yards to tally their only touchdown of the day, a two yard scramble by QB Max Johnson. Randy Bond converted the PAT and the score was 7-0 only six and a half minutes into the game. The Vols’ offense showed some life and scored their only offensive TD of the game late in the first quarter on a 7 yard pass from Joe Milton III to Jacob Warren. Charles Campbell’s PAT made it 7-7 entering the second stanza.

The Aggies struck back with a Bond field goal and then Campbell missed from 51 yards as the breeze pushed his long kick wide right. Thankfully, the defense - behind star Aaron Beasley and potential first team All American James Pearce Jr. - began stifling the the A&M offense. The third quarter began with an Aggie 10-7 lead with the game highlight being Berry’s halftime celebration.

The third quarter belonged to Tennessee’s Dee Williams. After downing a Ross punt at the half yard line, four plays later Williams scored on a 39 yard punt return after making several Aggies miss tackles. The TD and ensuing PAT got Neyland rocking again.

Though the Aggies would add another field goal, they remained scoreless in the last eighteen minutes of the game. An interception of a Johnson pass by Gabe Jeudy-Lally returned to the six yard line led to a 20-13 lead with 2:31 to go. The Vols’ lead could have been larger but for an interception in the end zone of a Milton pass thrown into double coverage - a “critical mistake” according to Coach Josh Heupel. In any event, the defense ended the game with yet another pick of a Johnson pass by the formerly maligned cornerback now turned hero Kamal Heddon.

While an SEC win over a solid Texas A&M team is significant, it was not pretty to say the least, and Tennessee will have to play much better to have a chance against Alabama next Saturday. The Crimson Tide defense will focus on Tennessee’s ground game led by Jaylen Wright’s 136 yards. Milton will need to quiet the noise around him against a revenge minded opponent and produce a much better passing day than 11-22 for 100 yards. Limiting A&M to 277 yards is a harbinger of better days for a criticized defense, but that and special teams excellence alone won’t cut it - the Tennessee passing game needs to show up and the team as a whole needs to limit its penalties - 12 for 115 yards won’t cut it either.

Long time Fan Roger Darden said “It wasn’t pretty but it’s a win! Tennessee goes 5-1.” His succinct statement summed up Saturday’s Tennessee win.

ut neyland stadium


*In Heupel’s career as a college Head Coach, until this A&M game his teams had never won a game scoring just 20 points

*Tennessee arguably has the best Running Back Trio in College Football in 2023

*Dee Williams’ heroics begged the question why this dynamic player did not get more touches during the game - are the coaches saving him for Alabama?

*Milton III never seemed in rhythm - dropped passes, penalties and misfires stalled the offense time and time again. He will need to play at a higher level for the Vols to win against teams like Georgia and Alabama.

*Offensive Coordinator Joey Halzle did not have a great game calling plays. Heupel did not have his best game either, once neglecting to go for it on a fourth and three and watching Campbell miss a field goal in the swirling wind from 51 yards. Later, Heupel inexplicably went for it on fourth and seven when field goal by Campbell would have been much easier.

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