MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. − Tennessee’s best season in over 20 years ended appropriately with a 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Friday.
Quarterback Joe Milton threw touchdown passes to three different receivers to earn MVP honors.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley had 12 tackles, a career-high four tackle-for-loss and two sacks to lead a defense that bowed but did not break. Defensive end Byron Young made two timely sacks in his last Tennessee game before going to the NFL. Wesley Walker and Tamarion McDonald intercepted in the fourth quarter to seal it.
It was the Vols’ best bowl win since the 1998 national title game, when No. 1 Tennessee defeated No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
This victory did not reach that height. But it wasn’t far off as No. 6 Tennessee (11-2) defeated No. 7 Clemson (11-3) in a top-10 matchup in a New Year’s Six Bowl.
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The Vols went on to record 11 wins for the first time since 2001, after recording 10 regular season wins for the first time since 2003. And it’s only coach Josh Heupel’s second season.
Here are four observations of Tennessee’s win amid a crowd of 63,912 at Hard Rock Stadium.
Joe Milton made quite an impression
Milton was steady and productive as he auditioned for the starting quarterback job in 2023, his last season of eligibility.
Milton was 19 of 28, passing for 251 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions. It was his second start since SEC Offensive Player of the Year Hendon Hooker suffered a torn ACL against South Carolina on November 19, ending his college career.
Milton finished the season with 10 TD passes and no interceptions. He will compete with freshman Tayven Jackson, who played sparingly this season, and five-star signing Nico Iamaleava, who led the scout team in bowl practices, for the 2023 starting job.
Squirrel White leads the next batch of Vols receivers
Tennessee previewed its wide receiving corps for 2023, and it looked promising.
Freshman Squirrel White had a career-high nine receptions for 108 yards and one TD. And he caught a 50-yard pass.
Bru McCoy had a 16-yard TD catch. Ramel Keyton reeled in a 46-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter to help the Vols pull away.
All three plan to return next season. Tennessee could also get a wide receiver in the transfer portal.
The unit had to be redesigned for the Orange Bowl while the stars were not playing. Jalin Hyatt, the 2022 Biletnikoff Award winner, and Cedric Tillman, a 2021 All-SEC performer, have opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Vols jumped ahead on Clemson fouls
The Vols earned a 14-3 halftime lead, but Clemson helped them. The Tigers had a failed fake field goal, three missed field goals, and costly clock mismanagement to close out the first half.
Clemson’s BT Potter had missed just three field goals during the regular season, going 18 of 21. It earned him an All-ACC selection and a semifinalist honor for the Lou Groza Award.
So it was surprising when Potter missed three field goals just in the first half. He was off target for 55 yards, 49 yards, and 42 yards on three consecutive possessions.
But the first time Potter lined up to punt, Clemson faked a field goal. Holder Drew Swinney, son of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, was stopped by Kamal Hadden and Solon Page, two yards short on a fourth and fourth rush.
And just before halftime, Clemson drove to the 13-yard line but ran out of time. Instead of throwing an incomplete pass to stop the clock, freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik scrambled and was dropped for a 2-yard gain as the clock expired.
Offense breaks more records to close out the season
Tennessee had already broken single-season school records for points and total offense, both set in 2021 in Heupel’s first season.
At the Orange Bowl, the Vols surpassed 4,000 yards in a season for the first time in school history. The previous record was 3,981 yards, set in 1997 in Peyton Manning’s senior season, which also ended in the Orange Bowl.
And Jabari Small’s 2-yard scoring in the second quarter was Tennessee’s FBS-leading 40th rushing TD of the season, tied for the 1951 national title team’s scoring.
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.
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