Running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small each turned in 100-yard nights, as Tennessee scored four touchdowns on the ground and rushed past Bowling Green, 38-6, to open the Josh Heupel era in victorious fashion.
With a crowd of 84,314 enjoying the opening contest of the 100th year of Neyland Stadium, Shields-Watkins Field, and the 125th season of Vol football, the Big Orange (1-0) dominated the ground game, 331-32 and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Evans, a junior, led the way with 120 yards and a score on 16 carries, while Small, a sophomore, recorded 117 yards and a TD on 22 attempts.
The efforts by the UT running back duo marked the 21st time in program history the Vols have had two 100-yard rushers in a single game. Evans also became the first Tennessee back to eclipse the century mark in his debut since Alvin Kamara carried for 144 yards in Nashville on Sept. 5, 2015, also vs. Bowling Green.
In his debut under center for the Big Orange, redshirt junior quarterback Joe Milton III ran for two scores and threw for another on a night in which he went 11 of 23 for 139 yards. Sophomore wideout Jalin Hyatt led UT in receiving with 62 yards on four grabs, and the team’s lone scoring toss was hauled in by redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman, who had two catches for 48 yards.
Tennessee’s fast-paced offense out-gained the Falcons in total yardage, 475-219, and the defense held BGSU to 2 of 14 on third-down conversions and allowed only a pair of second-quarter field goals. Senior defensive back Theo Jackson led the Rocky Top stop troops, totaling 11 tackles while charting three pass break-ups and 2.5 tackles for loss. Senior corner Alontae Taylor was in on six stops.
After UT’s suffocating first-quarter defense forced a three-and-out opening series by the Falcons, the Vols wasted little time getting on the scoreboard. In his first possession as a Vol, Milton engineered a 12-play, 66-yard drive that took just a tick shy of three minutes.
The transfer from Michigan completed four of five passes for 26 yards on the possession and carried twice for 14 more, contributing the scoring blow with a four-yard burst into the end zone. He became the first UT quarterback to rush for a touchdown in his first start since Brent Schaeffer did so on Sept. 5, 2004, vs. UNLV. Redshirt senior Chase McGrath booted home the PAT to stake the Vols to a 7-0 lead with 10:25 remaining in the first quarter.
Tennessee stopped Bowling Green again and scored more rapidly on its second possession, covering 67 yards on eight plays in 2:01. Milton was responsible for 17 of it on the ground, Hyatt hauled in a pair of passes for 36 yards, including a 30-yarder, and Small toted the ball twice for eight yards, including a one-yard plunge into the end zone. McGrath added the extra point to push the lead to 14-0 with 6:52 left in the opening stanza.
The 14 points scored in the first quarter by the Vols were the most since UT tallied 21 vs. Chattanooga on Sept. 14, 2019. Additionally, it was the highest opening-stanza point total against an FBS team since scoring 14 against Charlotte on Nov. 3, 2018.
BGSU forced the Vols to punt on their third and fourth possessions, and each time the Falcons carried that momentum to the offensive side of the ball, getting into position for a pair of Nate Needham field goals. The senior placekicker booted the first one through the uprights from 42 yards out with 9:54 to go in the second quarter and then drilled a 50-yarder with 1:16 remaining to trim the gap to 14-6 before halftime.
Tennessee took the second-half kickoff and unleashed a dominating rushing punch. Small ran four times for 36 yards, and Evans had carries of 21 and then 11 before Milton called his own number and sprinted around left end from one yard out. The Vols covered 72 yards in eight plays, all on the ground, taking only 1:58 off the clock. McGrath’s third PAT pushed the home team’s lead to 21-6 with 12:53 to go in the third.
The Vols cashed in again with 7:51 left in the third, with Evans’ power on full display. He had carries of 13 and eight along the way and then exploded up the middle on the next play after a pass interference penalty set the Big Orange up with a first down at the Bowling Green 19. McGrath’s PAT extended Tennessee’s lead to 28-6 with 7:51 left in the period, with Evans responsible for 40 yards of the five-play, 58-yard drive that drained only 1:18 off the clock.
The Vols added three more to the board with 9:36 left in the final frame. McGrath’s field goal from 43 yards away was true, pushing the score to 31-6.
Milton notched his first passing touchdown as a Vol with 5:11 to go, firing a 40-yard dart to Tillman who made a spectacular leaping one-on-one grab in the back of the end zone. McGrath knocked through the PAT and scored the game’s final point to make the score 38-6.
Tennessee will be back in action on Saturday, Sept. 11, as Pittsburgh comes to town for a noon affair on ESPN. The game is billed as the Johnny Majors Classic, honoring the late former head coach of both schools as well as the VFL tailback who lettered for the Big Orange from 1954-56.