MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The only thing stopping Tennessee fans from chanting “Rocky Top” when time ran out on Friday night was the need to serenade Joe Milton with something else.
“MVP!” they sang, over and over again. For good reason.
Milton, who only regained the starting job after his close friend Hendon Hooker was injured late in the year, led Tennessee to one of its finest moments in recent decades.
He completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns, and No. 6 Tennessee never fell short on his way to a 31-14 win over No. 10 Clemson at the Orange Bowl.
“I trust myself, I trust my coaching, and I just let it happen,” Milton said.
The Volunteers, who had not had an 11-win season since 2001, finished 11-2, capping a year in which they defeated Alabama, LSU and Clemson, programs that collectively won six of the seven College Football National Playoff titles.
“All the adversity that this group has faced throughout their career, what they’ve done over the past 23 months, I couldn’t be prouder of a group of individuals,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, who is an Oklahoma player the orange peel won a national title. “These players, our staff, Vol Nation, everyone has been on the journey.”
Squirrel White, Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton scored the goals for the volunteers. Jaylen Wright ran for 89 yards and Jabari Small had a touchdown run 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) simply missed out on top scoring chances; The Tigers came into Tennessee territory on nine of their first ten possessions, turning those trips into just two field goals.
Clemson finished 101 games for 484 yards and was still losing by 17.
“You don’t get points for yards,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “The name of the points of the game. … You have to finish and execute and we didn’t do that.”
Klubnik ran in from 4 yards to get Clemson within 21-14 with 10:01 left, but Milton connected with Keyton for a 46-yard score on Tennessee’s next possession. The Volunteers intercepted Klubnik on a desperate fourth downstroke about a minute later and were just about to seal the deal.
“I wish we could have started those seniors with a win,” said Klubnik. “I think we gave everything we had until the last game.”
In this very orange Bowl – both teams have it as their main color – the Tennessee shade was superior. Hooker was there, having flown in about a week ago to be with his team and help Milton prepare for the game.
“Blood can’t bring us closer,” Milton said. “This is my brother to the end.”
Milton opened the scoring with a 16-yard pass to McCoy, and Small’s 2-yard rush took the lead to 14-0 with a 9-03 at the half. The Vols’ offense, which led the nation in yards and points per game this year, wasn’t at its best, but it didn’t have to be, either.
Clemson got on the ball seven times in the first half, got into Tennessee territory all seven times, and made the 25 of the Vols four times.
Somehow it just ended up being three points.
The other six possessions: a stuffed fake field gate operated by Drew Swinney, son of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney; a barge; three missed field goals by BT Potter, the most prolific kicker in school history; and a brutal final kick when Klubnik was tackled at a keeper with 6 seconds left. Clemson ran out of time-outs, failed to field the field goal unit, and went into halftime 14-3 down.
“A lot of missed opportunities,” said Dabo Swinney.
Potter opened the second half with a no-problem 40-yarder, the 73rd field goal of his career, a school record for the Tigers. But White caught a 14-yard pass with 5 seconds left in the third, giving the Vols a 21-6 lead in the fourth.
When it was over, Milton took a knee, tucked the cue ball under his left arm and just wouldn’t let go. He will start as Tennessee’s presumptive starter in 2023, and expectations will be high for a program that went 20-27 in the four seasons prior to Heupel’s arrival, went 7-6 under him last year and has now won an Orange Bowl.
“It was a fun climb,” said Heupel. “The best is yet to come.”
Tennessee could gain a spot or two depending on what happens in the college football playoff games. It will be the Vols’ best close in at least 20 years; They were #4 in 2001 and #1 in 1998.
Clemson will complete the latest survey for the 12th consecutive year, extending the longest run in school history. The Tigers competed in six consecutive AP season-ending polls from 1986 to 1991.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/35351456/tennessee-tops-clemson-orange-bowl-cap-best-year-01 Tennessee tops Clemson in Orange Bowl to cap best year since ’01