Tennessee football reels off another explosive start in rout of South Carolina
Forget dark mode. Tennessee football is in lights-out mode.
For the second straight week, the Vols dismantled an SEC opponent, this time beating South Carolina 45-20 Saturday at Neyland Stadium while wearing black uniforms for the first time since 2009. A week earlier, they routed Missouri 62-24.
UT (4-2, 2-1 SEC) has posted its best record at the midpoint of the regular season since starting 5-1 in 2016 under Butch Jones. South Carolina (3-3, 0-3) remains winless in conference play.
And the Vols are headed for a matchup of two electric offenses as Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1) rolls into Knoxville next Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
Here are five observations from UT’s blowout win over the Gamecocks.
Vols know how to start a game
Jalin Hyatt caught a 3-yard TD pass to cap a 14-play, 66-yard drive on UT’s first possession. It marked the fourth time in six games this season that the Vols scored on their opening drive. They also did it against Bowling Green, Pittsburgh and Missouri.
But UT wasn’t done there. It scored three more TDs in the first quarter on JaVonta Payton’s 39-yard catch, Hendon Hooker’s 11-yard run and Velus Jones Jr.’s 21-yard catch for a 28-0 lead.
The Vols have outscored opponents 101-13 in the first quarter this season. UT's 28 points are the most in the first quarter since scoring 35 in a 63-20 win over Arkansas on Nov. 11, 2000, and it's done it in back-to-back weeks.
Hendon Hooker is on fire and getting hotter
UT’s early-season quarterback question has a definitive answer. Hooker made his fourth straight start since replacing an injured Joe Milton, who recovered two weeks ago.
Hooker was almost flawless, finishing 17-of-23 passing for 225 yards and three TDs. He also rushed for 66 yards and one TD.
Hooker became the first UT quarterback to toss multiple TD passes in five straight games since Tyler Bray did it in the first six games of the 2012 season.
JaVonta Payton chasing another Midstate product in TD streak
Payton, a former Hillsboro standout, is making the most of his only season with the Vols after transferring from Mississippi State as a graduate. He caught a 39-yard TD pass during the first-quarter onslaught.
Payton has caught a TD pass in four consecutive games, the longest streak by a UT player since Josh Malone did it in five straight games to end the 2016 season.
Defense isn’t fooled again
Fooled once. Fooled twice. But the Vols didn’t fall for it again.
UT’s defense had been burned by non-quarterback passes twice this season. Florida and Pitt each scored a TD on a double pass — that is, a lateral to a wide receiver, who tossed a forward pass.
The Vols know opponents will try unorthodox passes around the goal line until they stop them, so South Carolina gave it a shot with a halfback pass on second-and-goal from the 2-yard line in the first quarter.
Jordan Burch, a defensive end, entered the game at running back. He took a pitch and threw a pass into the end zone, but UT safety Jaylen McCollough leaped to pick off the pass. It was McCollough’s team-leading third interception of the season.
Aaron Beasley also recovered a fumble that set up a TD drive. The Vols have forced nine turnovers in the past four games after recording no takeaways in the first two games.
However, UT was fooled on a trick play on special teams when South Carolina scored on a 44-yard pass on a fake punt in the third quarter.
Tiyon Evans reaches 100 again, leaves with injury
Tiyon Evans, a junior college transfer, rushed for 119 yards on 16 carries, including a 45-yard TD in the second quarter. It was his third 100-yard rushing game in his debut season with the Vols. He had 120 yards against Bowling Green and 156 yards against Missouri.
Midway through the third quarter, Evans suffered an unspecified injury on a 3-yard run. After lying on the grass, he eventually left the field on his own power. Evans leads UT with 486 rushing yards in five games, as he missed the Pittsburgh game.
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.