No. 6 Tennessee takes 31-14 lead over No. 10 Clemson in Orange Bowl

Miami Gardens, FL – The only thing keeping Tennessee fans from singing “Rocky Top” as the clock ticked down on Friday night was the need to serenade Joe Milton with something else.

“MVP!” they chanted over and over. For good reason.

Milton — who only regained his starting job after his good friend Hendon Hooker was injured at the end of the year — led Tennessee to one of its best moments in decades. He completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns as No. 6 Tennessee beat No. 10 Clem 31-14 in the Orange Bowl Never fell behind in a Sen University game.

“I believe in myself, I believe in my coaches, I just let it happen,” Milton said.

The Volunteers finished 11-2 for the first time since 2001 and finished the year with wins over Alabama, LSU and Clemson — programs that combined Won six of the last seven College Football Playoff national championships.

“With all the adversity this team has faced in their careers, what they’ve done over the last 23 months, I’m incredibly proud of a group of people,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heppel, who played in Oklahoma City. The Colts won the national championship in the Orange Bowl.

Squirrel White, Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton scored for the Volunteers. Jalen Wright rushed for 89 yards and Jabari Small had a touchdown for Tennessee.

Cade Klubnik, making his first start for Clemson, completed 30 of 54 passes for 320 yards with two interceptions. But Clemson (11-3) hasn’t been getting the best scoring chances; the Tigers have gone into Tennessee territory on nine of their first 10 possessions — and turned those trips into just two field goals. .

Clemson finished with 484 yards in 101 starts and still lost by 17 yards.

“You don’t get any points for yardage,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Game points are the name of the game. … You have to finish and execute, and we didn’t.”

Klubnik ran in from 4 yards to give Clemson a 21-14 lead with 10:01 left, but Milton matched Keyton for a 46-yard score on Tennessee’s next possession. About a minute later, the Volunteers intercepted Klubnik in a desperate fourth sinking, all but sealing the result.

“Hopefully we can send these seniors with a win,” Klubnick said. “I think we’re going to give it our all before the last game.”

In this very orange Orange Bowl — both teams have made it their main color — Tennessee’s hue is even better. Hooker was there, flying in about a week ago with his team to help Milton get ready for the game.

“Blood cannot bring us closer,” Milton said. “That was my brother until the end.”

Milton opened the scoring with a 16-yard pass to McCoy, and Small’s 2-yard dash extended the lead to 14-0 with 9:03 left in the half. The nation’s most prolific offense isn’t the best — Tennessee leads the nation in yards and points per game this year — but it doesn’t have to be.

Clemson had the ball seven times in the first half, all seven times into Tennessee territory and four times into the Vols 25.

Somehow, that only turned into three points.

Six other possessions: Fake shot by Clemson coach’s son Drew Swinney; punt; BT Potter missed three field goals — the most prolific kicker in school history — And the brutal last goal when Klubnik was tackled by the goalkeeper with 6 seconds left. Clemson didn’t have a timeout and couldn’t allow a field goal unit to enter the half, trailing 14-3.

“A lot of opportunities were missed,” Dabo Swinney said.

Porter opened the second half with a 40-yard field goal — his 73rd career field goal and a Tigers school record. But White caught a 14-yard pass with five seconds left in the third to give the Vols a 21-6 lead going into the fourth.

After the game, Milton got down on one knee, tucked the game ball under his left arm, and refused to let go. Going into 2023, he’ll be Tennessee’s presumptive starter — 20-27 in the four seasons before Heupel’s arrival, 7-6 under him last year, and now winning orange bowl.

“It’s been an interesting climb,” Heupel said, “and the best is yet to come.”

takeout

Tennessee: Peyton Manning was on the sidelines before the game and dominated the game. When he appeared on screens in the stadium during the second half, he pointed to his Tennessee cap and nodded knowingly to the cheers of Vol fans.

Clemson: The three big plays the Tigers will be bemoaning aren’t hard to spot. A shot fake was one, Klubnick’s time management error late in the first half was another, and a third was a fourth-and-two decision from Vols 31 late in the third quarter. Will Shipley was blocked on a left run and Milton found White for a 21-6 lead after four plays.

impact of voting

Tennessee could move up a spot or two, depending on how the College Football Playoff goes. It would be the best finish for the Vols in at least 20 years; they finished fourth in 2001 and first in 1998.

Clemson will participate in the final ballot for the 12th consecutive year, continuing the longest voting record in school history.

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Tennessee: Vols vs. Virginia on Sept. 2, 2023 in Nashville. It will be Virginia’s first game since the shooting that killed three players and led to the cancellation of the Cavaliers’ final two games in 2022.

Clemson: A Week 1 game against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent is pending and could be announced in January. Clemson’s first non-conference game is Sept. 9 against Charleston Southern.

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