Joe Milton opened his Tennessee career doing his best Josh Dobbs impersonation, spreading the ball around like a point guard while also calling his own number with some easy “buckets” via QB runs.

After just two quick series, the Vols were up 14-0 in a flash against Bowling Green, with the former Michigan quarterback 7 of 9 for 68 yards plus 31 yards rushing and a score. If you checked Twitter, many in Big Orange Nation were quickly anointing Milton as a potential program savior.

“The trigger man we’ve been missing.”

Yet by the end of the night, Milton’s new head coach was giving his quarterback the kind of postgame endorsement usually saved for a struggling playmaker whose starting job could be considered tenuous.

“We believe in Joe,” Vols first-year coach Josh Heupel said Saturday following Tennessee’s 38-7 win over Bowling Green.

Milton is unlikely to give up his spot anytime soon, but if the Vols are going to make any sort of headway in Year 1 of the Heupel era, they need their QB1 — and everyone around him — to execute a whole lot better, starting Saturday against Pitt (12 p.m., ESPN).

The Panthers, with grizzled defensive coach Pat Narduzzi leading the charge, are going to present a much stiffer test than Bowling Green (duh!), and while UT had success on the ground versus the Falcons, its offense mostly stalled following a quick start going up against one of the worst teams in college football.

On Saturday, Milton completed just 2 passes after halftime, finishing the night 11-of-23 for 140 yards. Overall, he didn’t see the field well, had spotty footwork, took multiple bad sacks on 3rd down and missed 2 deep shots to Cedric Tillman, overthrowing the veteran wideout both times.

Even his lone touchdown pass — a 40-yard shot to Tillman — was an iffy decision considering the difficulty of the throw, as wideout Jalin Hyatt was streaking down the seam open for an easier throw. But Milton never saw him.

Still, as Heupel outlined Monday, not all of Tennessee’s offensive issues could — or should — be laid at Milton’s feet.

He needs help — from everyone around him.

The offensive line held up mostly well in pass protection, but the unit missed a couple of protection checks that led to pressure. The tailbacks whiffed on multiple blocks, with one bust leading to a sack-fumble. Finally, the receivers dropped 3 passes (2 by Hyatt, 1 from tight end Princeton Fant) and struggled to routinely get behind the defense.

Add it all up, and the Vols have a lot to clean up before facing the Panthers.

“A lot of it is simple execution,” Heupel said Monday. “It’s (Milton) having his eyes in the right spot, his feet being in the right position to be accurate with the football.

“There were a couple of times where we hit a receiver down the field and they have to come up with the catch. Some things where wide receivers weren’t reading it the same way that he is. There were a couple of things in protection where he’s scrambling.

“When it’s going good and it looks easy at times it’s because all 11 are doing their job at a really high level. It just takes one guy on the offensive side of the ball to put yourself in a position where you’re not executing. There’s things that we can do to make sure that we perform at a high level.”

Tennessee ran the ball 64 times Saturday, racking up more than 300 yards on the ground. The Vols will continue to lean on the ground game until Milton gets more comfortable in a new system, but Heupel’s offense only works at *peak functionality* if his wideouts can win 1-on-1 matchups on the perimeter and his quarterback is capable of completing said vertical routes.

“There’s some things that we obviously have to correct in the pass game and everybody played a part in it,” Heupel said. “The quarterback having his eyes in the right spot and delivering the ball. Receivers understanding what we’re asking them to do and being able to read coverages.”

Pitt comes to Knoxville this weekend boasting one of the better defensive lines in college football. The Panthers led the ACC in rush defense in 2020, allowing just 2.65 yards per carry — No. 3 nationally. In Week 1, UMass had all of 42 yards on 27 attempts (1.56 per rush) against Pitt.

Heupel, who went up against Narduzzi and Pitt twice while at UCF going 1-1, knows the Panthers are going to stack the box and dare UT’s receivers to beat aggressive press-man coverage. Narduzzi is also notorious for his complex pressure packages, so can the Vols answer the challenge?

“They’re going to be tough and physical out on the perimeter and inside the core, too,” Heuepl said. “The second half of that (Bowling Green) game’s probably as poorly as we’ve executed since we started training camp. We can get back and execute the way we did early in the football game. … When it looked good, all 11 were operating as one. When it didn’t somebody was off. We’ve got to have great fundamentals and technique, learn from those things and get better this week.”