Battle of the Oranges: Tennessee Beats Clemson to Wrap Up 11-Win Season
MIAMI GARDENS — Joe Milton III has been talking about playing in the Capital One Orange Bowl since his Tennessee team earned the invitation earlier this month.
Milton grew up in nearby Pahokee and his first college football game back home in South Florida did not disappoint.
The Tennessee redshirt-senior making just his fourth start for the Volunteers was named MVP of the Orange Bowl after passing for 251 yards and three touchdowns in leading Tennessee to a 31-14 victory over Clemson which cemented the team’s best season since 2001.
“It feels great,’’ Milton said. “I have pretty much been talking about it since we figured out we were coming down here. It was a statement game for Tennessee, but also a statement game for me playing at home.”
All three of Milton’s touchdown passes went to different receivers with Squirrel White ending with 108 yards on nine catches and 10 targets. Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy also caught scoring passes from Milton in the win.
Running back Jaylen Wright led the ground attack, finishing with 89 yards. Jabari Small scored Tennessee’s lone rushing touchdown from the 2.
Quarterback Cade Klubnik, the MVP of the ACC championship after replacing DJ Uiagalelei, led the Tigers with 320 passing yards and ran for 51 more including a 4-yard touchdown in the fourth.
The No. 6 Volunteers end 11-2 after spending a week as the top-ranked team in the country. In 2001, Tennessee ended 11-2 and ranked No. 4 following a blowout win over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
Clemson, ranked No. 7 coming in, ends its season as ACC champions after beating North Carolina in Charlotte, but lost two of its final three games to finish 11-3.
“You think back about this season with this group of guys, finishing it the way we did will certainly be a great memory,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, who won the 2001 Orange Bowl and the national championship as Oklahoma’s quarterback by beating Florida State 13-2.
After starting two games at the start of the 2021 season upon transferring from Michigan, Milton got hurt against Pittsburgh in Tennessee’s second game.
Hendon Hooker, Milton’s roommate, took over and became a strong Heisman Trophy candidate before he sustained a knee injury Nov. 19 at South Carolina.
Milton came on in relief but the Vols suffered a 63-38 loss to the Gamecocks, knocking them out of contention for one of the four spots in the Playoff Semifinals.
By throwing for 147 yards and a touchdown in a dominating 56-0 win at Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale, Milton helped the Vols earn an invitation to the Orange Bowl.
Friday night, Milton always seemed to keep the Tigers at arms-length.
In the first quarter, he gave his Volunteers a lead they would not relinquish when he tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to McCoy in the back of the end zone with 5:17 remaining in the first.
Tennessee’s second touchdown came on a 2-yard burst up the middle from Smith — but it was set up on a 48-yard pass when Milton dropped a dime to a diving White.
Clemson appeared to be fighting an uphill battle throughout the game — especially in the first half — as the Tigers had a 273-191 yard advantage but found themselves down 11 at the half.
The Tigers cut into their deficit with a field goal to open the third but Milton worked some magic again and made it 21-6 with 5 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Tennessee got the ball at its own 30 with 1:27 left and three big runs from Jaylen Wright — including a 42-yard sprint to the 19 — put the Vols in business.
The 70-yard drive was capped by Milton’s second scoring pass of the night as he and Wright hooked up again, this time for a 14-yard scoring pass.
“We have young guys who continue to get better,” Heupel said. “They love learning and growing. It allows us to continue making strides.’’
Clemson, as expected, made it a game when Klubnik ran it in from the 4 with 10:01 left and after the 2-point conversion, it was a 21-14 game with plenty of time remaining.
Milton, again, did the Tigers in.
On the ensuing drive, Milton and Wright worked Tennessee into Clemson territory before connecting with Keyton on a 46-yard bomb.
The Orange Bowl MVP trophy may as well have been delivered to Milton right then and there.
“He continues to progress,” Heupel said. “He did a lot of really good things tonight. I am so happy to have him. His best football is ahead for him.”
Tennessee added a 32-yard field goal from Chase McGrath with 3:07 remaining to put Clemson on the ropes — but Klubnik still showed plenty of fight driving deep into Tennessee territory.
Yet any chance of a Clemson comeback closed when Klubnik was intercepted in the end zone with 1:42 left.
Without any timeouts remaining, Clemson could only watch as Milton sat on the ball to ran out the clock.
“They did what they needed to do to win the game, earned it,’’ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
“Two teams had really good years, both teams earned their way here tonight, and they earned the win on the field tonight. We did not. Incredibly disappointing. Just name of the game; a lot of missed opportunities, simple as that."
“First half, I think we had six scoring opportunities out of seven drives, and we got one field goal out of it.”
In the first half, Clemson left plenty of points on the field as Tennessee took an 11-point lead in at halftime.
Even though the Tigers got inside the Tennessee 35 six times in the opening half, they only mustered three points.
Clemson not only attempted a fake field goal from the 27 on its first offensive possession, but kicker B.T. Potter missed three field goals — two wide right (55 and 49 yards) and one to the left (42).
“It’s tough,’’ said Potter, who did put the Tigers on the board with a 31-yard kick with 5:11 left in the half and hit a second one early in the third. “I felt like I had good preparation all week. Got here today, and I thought I hit the ball well. Then things just didn’t go my way.”
In the final seconds of the quarter and no timeouts, Klubnik ran the ball twice — following a delay of game penalty — and the clock ran out with Clemson inside the 20.
“The name of the game is points, and you get points by scoring touchdowns,’’ Klubnik said. “We needed to score touchdowns, and we weren't doing that. Part of that was on me. I took a sack on third down. There was just a lot of missed opportunities.
“Tennessee did a great job on disguising and disguising their blitzes and their coverages, and there was a lot of opportunities we had, especially in the red zone. But just we needed to finish. That's what we needed to do.”
ORANGE BOWL HONORS
Three former college greats were inducted into the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame presented by AutoNation as part of the Class of 2022.
Those honored were Miami linebacker Bernard Clark Jr., Oklahoma linebacker Dewey Selmon and Nebraska defensive end Grant Wistrom.
The three former players who made up the 2022 Hall of Fame class joined 130 others who have made a significant impact on the Orange Bowl since its inception in 1935.
Also, former Miami news personality Tony Segreto was named the 2022 recipient of the Edwin Pope Orange Bowl Vanguard Media Award, which annually honors a member of the sports media who has made significant contributions to college football and impacted the Orange Bowl and/or the South Florida community.
The four were honored at the annual AvMed Orange Bowl Coaches Luncheon presented by AutoNation on December 29 at Jungle Island in Miami.
They were also celebrated on the field at Hard Rock Stadium prior to kickoff.
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