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Vols take the fight to Vanderbilt on Senior Day 48-24
by Thomas Mabry, Knoxville Daily Sun UT football writer
November 26, 2023, 12:23 p.m.

vols beat vanderbilt
Photo by Thomas Mabry

For the last of the Vols’ football reports for this year, let us just jump immediately into the Turning Point.

One could say in reviewing Tennessee’s last regular season game of 2023 that the 100,000 fans “went to a Fight and a Football Game broke out.” Vanderbilt, in a close game, became the aggressor in a second quarter melee spearheaded by Coach Clark Lea, who led his entire squad onto Shields-Watkins Field during play, substitution rules be damned. The rivalry between the two Southeastern Conference schools from Tennessee became a literal Turf War, and the Vols were the team that benefitted the most.

vols beat vanderbilt
Photo by Thomas Mabry

Tennessee, favored by 27 points against the two win Commodores, started fast on Senior Day. The offense took only three plays to score on a well designed and perfectly executed 56 yard pass from Joe Milton III to Ramel Keyton. Charles Campbell made the PAT, and the score was 7-0 only one minute into the game.

Was a rout on?

Not so fast: Vanderbilt’s first possession ended with a sleight of hand 19 yard pass from AJ Swann to Junior Sherill. Jacob Borcila’s conversion made it 7-7 with 11:34 left to play in the first quarter. On the next series, Vandy seemingly scored on an apparent scoop and run for a 14-7 lead, but the fumble was ruled an incomplete pass on further review.

After an exchange of punts, Tennessee did manage to score two more touchdowns on passes from Milton to his tight ends McCallan Castles and hometown hero Jacob Warren before a Borcila field goal kept Vandy hanging around at 21-10. The Warren TD was immediately preceded by yet another Vandy fumble recovery and yet another reversed call as Squirrel White was ruled down before coughing it up. Two plays later the Vols were in the end zone, and on the field it was evident that the Commodore sideline and players were seething as the nasty play amped up.

vols beat vanderbilt
Photo by Thomas Mabry

A Campbell field goal after a Jaylen Wright inspired drive made it a two touchdown game. Then the Commodores started driving again, on their way to cutting the lead to a touchdown. Then the inexcusable and inexplicable occurred.

The referees failed to effectively stop play on two consecutive pre-snap penalties, leaving quarterback Swann to get pummeled twice in a row by Tennessee defenders. With the ball in their possession, Vandy could have chosen to call a time out to chasten the officials for their collective misdeeds, but their frustration in the game and of the season failed to anchor the squad in the appropriate place on the sidelines, a failed mission by their spirited head coach. When the field cleared of coaches, players, uniformed law enforcement personnel - and probably a sneaky spectator or two and maybe Smokey - Vandy was tagged with more unsportsmanlike penalties than Tennessee and Lea’s provocative behavior left his team with a fourth and 38 from their own 38. The promising drive turned into a field position turnaround and forced a punt by Matthew Hayball.

vanderbilt football team
Photo by Thomas Mabry

The Volunteers’ Dee Williams returned the punt twenty yards to the Tennessee 46. A reinvigorated offense pushed down the field and scored with a 2 yard Milton keeper just before halftime. A potential 24-17 halftime score had turned post-fight into a 31-10 Vols lead.

The Tennessee momentum continued into the second half with another Milton touchdown pass to Keyton and the quarterback himself rolling into the end zone on a two yard run to make the score 45-10 after three quarters.

The final stanza of the Neyland season included stints by Tennessee quarterback heir apparent Nico Iamaleava and backup Gaston Moore. The enthusiasm generated by the second quarter antics waned for the Vols, who saw their lead dwindle to three touchdowns before a Campbell field goal made the final margin 48-24.

ut vols cheerleaders
Photo by Thomas Mabry

Milton finished 22-33 passing for 383 yards and four touchdowns to go with his two rushing touchdowns. Jaylen Wright carried 11 times for 76 yards and in so doing capped a 1000 yard rushing season. Squirrel White caught ten passes for 100 yards. Will Brooks led the defensive charge with eight tackles, one for a loss. The Vols’ defense also harassed Vandy quarterbacks Swann and Ken Seals throughout the game. Vandy was led in rushing by Sedrick Alexander with 46 hard earned yards.

Coach Josh Heupel praised the Seniors who stuck around Tennessee following the Jeremy Pruitt coaching debacle. According to Heupel, the departing Vols helped establish a culture that led to nineteen wins in the past two seasons and twenty if the team won their bowl game. He specifically lauded the offensive line, whose numerous personnel and position changes were unprecedented to Heupel as a coach and as a player.

For Tennessee, the year 2023 bore disappointment but considering a new offensive coordinator, the offensive line mishmash, and a first year full time iQB in Milton, an 8-4 record must be regarded realistically as a success, especially in moving the program forward in a positive direction. There are no championships, but a Florida bowl game is potentially in the offing, to be announced after the SEC championship game next week. There are reasons to be wholly optimistic for the UT football program.


*Shockingly, no player nor coach was ejected from the game in the second quarter skirmish. Perhaps the referees were concerned that they themselves had let the game get out of hand, as it was chippy from the start. The policy of the SEC is the review the scuffle sequence and they can make a determination of suitable punishment after the fact.

*Tennessee coaches were demonstrably imploring their players not to engage so as to lose them for the remainder of the game and for two quarters of the upcoming bowl game. Not defending oneself against a bullrush from a 100+ member entire black clad mob proved impossible, and Tennessee may face league penalties. Vandy will have to wait until next year to suffer their penalty, as they aren’t going to a bowl game. Perhaps Coach Lea will be put in “Time Out” for two or more quarters of Vandy’s first game next year if he doesn’t get fired beforehand.

*Milton passed for more yardage than he ever has in one college game. His hand in six touchdowns had not been accomplished at Tennessee since Jonathon Crompton in 2009. In post game comments, Milton indicated that he went out in his Neyland playing days with a Bang. That’s an understatement.

*Jaylen Wright became Tennessee’s first 100 yard rusher since Jalen Hurd last accomplished the feat in 2015.

*Speculation on whether Milton would play in a Vols’ bowl game ended when he intimated that he looked forward to being with his teammates for another month.

*In the post-game interview, “Cali” McCallan said that in his one year at Tennessee that it’s been the “best college football experience” that he had ever been around in multiple stops, and that “Tennessee is a great place if you want to play football.” The Vols’ coaches will undoubtedly mention McCallan’s comments while on the recruiting trail and to the transfer portal candidates.

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