The Tennessee football program was coming off a three-win season in 2020, so becoming bowl eligible on Saturday night was a big deal for this team. After losing to Georgia last weekend, it was key for this team to get back on the winning side and staying healthy in the process. So consider tonight's 60-14 win over South Alabama a nice way to flex some offensive muscle.
It was a big night for starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, as he finished 17-20 for 273 yards and 2 TD's through the air, while rushing for another. Hooker continued to pad his stats on the season, especially in completion percentage, finishing at 85% tonight.
Hendon has thrown a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games, which ties him for sixth all-time in program history. If he were to throw a touchdown pass next weekend against Vanderbilt, he will tie Peyton Manning and Erik Ainge at 11 straight games.
Josh Heupel spoke about the competitive nature of this football team and the mindset of his players.
“The challenge in everything we do is to finish. Our guys continue to compete at a high level. Our best is still out in front of us.”
“Their competitive spirit’s the same every week," Heupel added. "That’s competitive maturity.”
The Vols were without running back Tiyon Evans tonight, so it was Jabari Small getting the start. Small ended the night with 73 yards and 2 TD's, looking good in the process, as he continues to deal with a shoulder injury. The rushing game was also helped by Jaylen Wright, who finished the night with 83 yards and 1 touchdown. Len'Neth Whitehead also contributed a touchdown on the ground.
South Alabama was held to 69 yards rushing tonight, as the Tennessee defense recorded four sacks on the night as well. Jaguars WR Jalen Tolbert lived up to the billing, which as been the case all season, finishing with 143 yards and 1 TD, with his longest play being a 68 yard touchdown. Other than Tolbert, the Vols secondary held the Jaguars WR's in-check, with Theo Jackson having six tackles on the night.
The Vols showed their aggressiveness on offense, especially in the play calling, which is something Josh Heupel knows players will want to come be a part of in the future.
"We are going to be the most aggressive team on the football field in all three phases of the game. And kids want to be a part of that."
It was a big night for Mobile, Alabama native Velus Jones Jr., who had 103 yards receiving. But, his big play finally came in the special teams department, as he took a kickoff 96 yards to the house for his first return touchdown of the season. Cedric Tillman had another big game, with 5 receptions for 100 yards and 1 TD.
Tennessee scored on its first six possessions tonight, again setting the tone for what the night would entail and keep South Alabama on their heels. Again, this team found a way to be successful on offense early on, which has put them in fantastic spots for most of the season. The way this defense has performed, while also dealing with injuries, is something that shouldn't be lost on folks.
Now the Vols will prepare for Vanderbilt, as they look to close out the season strong with their seventh win of the season. The good thing that came out of tonight is that this team will get to play together for another month, which I promise you these players won't take for granted.