KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Just when No. 9 Tennessee’s pass defense looked like it had solved its problems from a year ago, Austin Peay happened.
The Volunteers’30-13 win over the Governors (0-2) came with a yield of 260 passing yards and a touchdown, eerily similar to last year when they ranked 128th of 133 FBS teams.
In last week’s win over Virginia, Tennessee (2-0) was effective in limiting the Cavaliers to 106 yards in the air.
The challenge will be to clean things up in time for next week’s trip to Florida in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“We need a sense of urgency in how we come back,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “We’ve got to make strides. Obviously, the environment will be bigger next week.”
Austin Peay played a wide-open, up-tempo, free-wheeling game. The Governors converted on fourth down three times in the first half — twice with runs, one of them a 45-yard burst by quarterback Mike DiLiello — and once by penalty.
“We got back to play Austin Peay football,” Governors coach Scotty Waldron said. “No doubt about it. We wanted to play physical; we played fearless.”
DiLiello completed 29 passes for 260 yards and a TD.
“Our game plan was to get our guys in space and get our play-makers in space,” DiLiello said. “We did a great job with that.”
While the Governors had success through the air, Tennessee had a defensive push that rolled up 14 tackles for loss, seven of which were sacks.
Vols linebacker Aaron Beasley led the way with five tackles for loss.
“I thought (Beasley) tackled well,” Heupel said. “He was violent.”
Beasley said he has taken on more since Keenan Pili was injured last week and will be out for a while.
“I was interchanged at both linebacker spots,” Beasley said. “I’ve picked up more of a load.”
The short passing game was the primary tool used against the Austin Peay defense.
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III completed 21 passes for 228 yards and two scores. The long reception traveled 43 yards, mostly after the catch, by tight end McCallan Castles.
“We used the short passing game to get things going,” said Milton. “We had the defense going from sideline to sideline.”
The problems were manifested in three penalties (two holding and one offense pass interference), a fumble by Ramel Keyton and a few drops.
The start of the game was delayed by inclement weather.
The Vols struggled getting anything going early. The score was tied at 6 before Milton ran for a 6-yard score 15 seconds before halftime and threw for a 5-yard TD to Keaton with 1:30 gone in the second half
“I didn’t feel we were unfocused,” Heupel said. “We’ve got to learn, reset and grow.”
When Austin Peay held Tennessee without a touchdown in the first quarter, it ended a streak of 20 consecutive quarters — dating to the fourth quarter of last year’s loss to Georgia — in which the Vols had scored a TD.
Austin Peay: Austin Peay’s wide-open offense, which didn’t have time to function against the Vols, showed signs of being able to execute against a normal FCS defense. Size and speed deficiencies were too much to overcome.
Tennessee: The wild card in the offense could likely be Cooper Mays. The senior center had knee surgery during summer camp and missed the first two games of the season. Because of his absence, which caused several linemen to play out of their normal position, the run game was stifled a bit and quarterback Joe Milton had trouble getting into a rhythm. Mays should be back next week for the trip to Florida, allowing a new sense of stability to come to the trenches.
The Governors were aggressive and the Vols struggled to make good things happen. Though it wasn’t a loss, it will make the Vols’ status as a Top 10 team much more precarious as they prepare to roll into The Swamp next weekend with a huge target on their back for a bunch of Gators who will be hungry.
Austin Peay: Host East Tennessee State on Saturday.
Tennessee: At Florida on Saturday.