Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more scores, as Tennessee rolled past Ball State in the season opener, 59-10, Thursday night in front a crowd of 92,236 at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols, who employ a high-octane offensive attack under second-year head coach Josh Heupel, eclipsed the 45-point mark for the fourth straight game. That feat matched a school record set over the final four games of the 1993 season.
UT intercepted the Cardinals on their initial play from scrimmage and scored on its own first offensive snap, building leads of 17-0 after one and 38-0 through the opening 30 minutes. Tennessee rolled up 306 yards of offense in the first half, with Hooker producing 211 of it through the air on 17-of-23 passing. He finished 18-of-25 for 221, directing his troops to six touchdowns and a field goal in eight possessions before departing early in the third quarter.
Hooker now has thrown touchdown passes in 13 straight games, tying Tony Robinson for second place in Tennessee history. He also moved to 10th in career TD tosses on Rocky Top with 33, passing the 32 of Tee Martin and Bobby Scott.
Nine different receivers were the beneficiaries of passes from Hooker and redshirt senior reserve Joe Milton III, who went 8-of-9 for 113 yards and a score in two touchdown-netting drives before giving way to freshman Tayven Jackson. Leading UT's receiving corps was redshirt senior Cedric Tillman, who hauled in six balls for 69 yards, followed by junior Jimmy Holiday (4-62, 1 TD) and senior Ramel Keyton (4-57). That trio helped their squad generate 351 passing yards and 569 in total offense.
On the ground, the Big Orange churned out 218 yards and tallied five touchdowns. Jaylen Wright had 88 yards and a score on 13 rushes, while Jabari Small carried 13 times for 63 yards and a score to set the tone. Freshman Dylan Sampson also found the end zone in his Rocky Top debut.
The defense was paced by senior corner back Warren Burrell, sophomore corner Christian Charles and senior linebacker Aaron Beasley with eight tackles each. The Vol stop-troops also got interceptions from Tamarion McDonald and cornerback Kamal Hadden, with each leading directly to touchdowns in the first and second quarters, respectively.
The Vols struck swiftly on the warm evening, thanks to McDonald's pick on the game's first play from scrimmage. The junior short-circuited a flea flicker pass attempt by Cardinal redshirt junior quarterback John Paddock, snaring it and returning to the BSU 23. On UT's first offensive play of the campaign, Hooker connected with junior wide receiver Jalin Hyatt for a 23-yard touchdown pass. Redshirt senior placekicker Chase McGrath booted the PAT to provide the Big Orange a 7-0 lead with 14:37 left in the first quarter.
Tennessee added three more points at the 8:03 mark in the opening period. McGrath was good from 33 yards out to push UT's advantage to 10-0 after an eight-play, 46-yard drive.
The Big Orange made it 17-0 with 4:02 left in the initial stanza. Hooker faked a handoff up the middle, scooted to his left and carried the ball in himself from one yard out. McGrath's point-after pushed the score to 17-0.
The Vols set off fireworks three more times in the second quarter to build a 38-0 cushion at the half. Hooker added a three-yard scoring run with 14:29 to go and Small bulldozed his way seven yards to a score with 4:33 remaining. After a nifty Hadden interception, Hooker directed the Vols down the field and found receiver Walker Merrill wide open on a post pattern for a 16-yard strike and the sophomore's first career TD catch with 1:45 left. McGrath was good on the trio of extra points.
Tennessee got first crack at the ball in the second half and continued its offensive onslaught. The Vols put together their longest drive of the night, from a yardage standpoint, marching 94 yards in 11 plays. Wright capped the possession with a 33-yard burst up the middle, followed by a three-yard scoring plunge to build upon the lead. McGrath's PAT made it 45-0 with 11:52 left in the third period.
Ball State finally got on the scoreboard with 8:00 minutes remaining in the third. Paddock connected with freshman tight end Tanner Koziol on a three-yard touchdown pass, with graduate kicker Ben VonGunten adding the extra point to cut the Vol lead to 45-7.
Milton III entered the game at quarterback for UT's second drive of the second half and guided the Vols to their seventh touchdown, covering 78 yards in 13 plays and burning 6:05 off the clock. Sampson climaxed the possession with his first career trip into the end zone, burrowing in from the two with 1:48 to go in the third. McGrath again added the PAT to make it 52-7.
The Vols stayed perfect in point production on second-half possessions, striking for another six. Milton's second drive under center culminated with a bullet to a speeding Holiday on a post route for 53 yards. McGrath's kick made it 59-7 for the home team with 13:04 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Ball State added a second score late in the fourth, with a 25-yard VonGunten field goal with 2:55 remaining accounting for the final tally.
Tennessee will be back in action on Saturday, Sept. 10, as the Vols make the trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to take on the 17th-ranked Pitt Panthers (1-0) at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. The game at Acrisure Stadium (formerly Heinz Field) will mark the second edition of the Johnny Majors Classic, honoring the late former head coach of both schools as well as the VFL tailback who lettered for the Big Orange from 1954-56.