NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The simple normalcy of playing football means so much for the Virginia Cavaliers that the final score didn’t matter Saturday.
Losing three teammates to a shooting last November will never be forgotten. Coach Tony Elliott made clear what they endured that day was “unprecedented” and remains hard to put into words.
“I mean, every day they're reminded of what happened, and not everybody is done grieving or healing," Elliott said Saturday. "We're still healing. ... That's the victory for us."
Joe Milton III threw two touchdown passes and ran for two other scores as the 12th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers routed Virginia 49-13 on Saturday in the season opener for both teams and the Cavaliers' first game in 294 days.
Before kickoff, a moment of silence was held. The Vols also wore a sticker on their helmets with the numbers of the late Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry. Cheerleaders from both teams placed flowers at the 1-, 10- and 41-yard markers — the numbers of each of those players.
Virginia running back Mike Hollins, who needed several surgeries after being wounded in the shooting, helped lead the Cavaliers onto the field. He finished with three carries for minus-7 yards and one catch. Elliott called Hollins a “walking miracle.”
“Back in November, we had no idea like what his life was going to look like, much less that he was going to be able to run out with the ... flag today and be able to play and be a significant part of our game plan,” Elliott said. “Just a testament to him and really proud of him. He's an inspiration to me.”
The Vols improved to 4-1 all-time against Virginia in the first game of this series since the 1991 Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said playing in Nashville is important as a prime recruiting area.
“It’s a really positive win," Heupel said. "There’s a lot of things to take away from it on the positive side. At the same time, there’s a lot of ways that we can be a whole lot better as a program.”
Tennessee scored on its opening drive and never trailed. Milton’s 1-yard run just before halftime put the Vols up 21-3. Dylan Sampson caught a 9-yard TD pass that capped Tennessee's first drive. He also had three TD runs of 3 yards or less.
James Pearce Jr. had two sacks in the first half for a Tennessee defense that ranked 90th nationally last season giving up 405.3 yards a game. The Vols finished with four sacks and a 499-201 edge in total yards of offense.
Tony Muskett started for Virginia after transferring from Monmouth and quickly found Southeastern Conference defense is nothing like the Colonial Athletic Association. He was 9 of 17 for 94 yards before hurting his shoulder late when tackled. Elliott said they didn't know the extent of the injury.
With Tennessee up 28-3, Elliott went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Cavs 34. Muskett was dropped for a 4-yard loss. Six plays later, Sampson ran for a TD that padded the lead.
Heupel pulled Milton after an 11-yard TD pass to Jacob Warren early in the fourth made it 42-10. Milton finished with 201 yards passing and 33 yards rushing when replaced by five-star recruit Nico Iamaleava.
Virginia: The Cavaliers, who went 3-7 in Elliott's debut season, struggled mightily against a program that went 11-2 and beat Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Cavs had their chances starting in Tennessee territory three of the first six possessions only to go three-and-out five times. Will Bettridge also missed a 28-yard field goal to finish a drive that started at Tennessee's 29. The Cavs had only 15 yards of total offense until a drive for the field-goal late in the first half.
Tennessee: The fastest and top-scoring offense in the nation last season worked through some kinks in the first half after opening with a TD drive that took 2:47. Ramel Keyton dropped a deep pass from Milton that hit his hands, and Milton overthrew Keyton on another long pass with plenty of room to run.
Virginia nose tackle Olasunkonmi Agunloye was carted off at the end of the first quarter. He had a sack and recovered a fumbled punt. But he slipped celebrating going to the sideline on Nissan Stadium's new artificial surface, which features shredded coconut husks and cork.
Tennessee certainly didn't do anything to hurt its ranking, even if this neutral site felt like Neyland Stadium West with the largest attendance here for a football game at 69,507.
Milton had seen teammates celebrate on the field after games. With his young sister Journey wearing a Tennessee cheerleader outfit as well, the timing was perfect.
“My siblings, they look up to me,” Milton said. “For them to have that moment with me and cherish it with the team is great.”
Virginia: Hosts James Madison on Sept. 9 in its first home game since Nov. 12.
Tennessee: Hosts Austin Peay in its home opener on Sept. 9.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll