JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 2014 season officially came to a close on Friday evening at EverBank Field as the Tennessee Volunteers earned the program’s first winning season since 2009 with a 45-28 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes. In a game that many viewed as a tossup, Tennessee would cruise to a 45-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter before giving up three late touchdowns after the Vol defensive starters were taken out of the game.
In a game that was far from a must-win for Tennessee, the Vols left zero doubt that this was game that they wanted to win from the moment they took the field for pregame warmups. And while the list could truly go on for pages and pages, here are the five biggest takeaways from yesterday’s 45-28 win over Iowa:
SEC Speed, SEC Toughness: Heading into this game, the common storyline was Iowa’s toughness and experience pitted against Tennessee’s talented youth. Well, if Iowa was supposed to be the tougher team, then someone forgot to tell the Vols. Not only did Volunteer ball-carriers routinely beat Iowa defenders to the edge with their speed, they also broke countless tackles at the point of contact against an Iowa defense that is known for their sure-tackling. Jalen Hurd, Joshua Dobbs, Pig Howard, Marlin Lane – I could go on – all looked faster, tougher, and, quite frankly, more determined in this game than their Iowa counterparts.
But it wasn’t just Tennessee’s offense that flipped the narrative. The Volunteer defensive line out-muscled the highly touted Hawkeye linemen in the trenches on numerous occasions in the first three quarters, consistently preventing the Iowa ground game from getting much traction and forcing the Hawkeyes into passing situations. Tennessee combined their SEC speed with a level of toughness that Iowa could not match at any point in the game.
Healthy Vols: It’s pretty clear that this Tennessee team plays at a completely different level when a few key players are healthy, and yesterday’s game drove that point home. The last month or so allowed some key members of Team 118 to get into the training room, rest their bodies and regain some much-needed health ahead of this game. Starters like Mack Crowder, Jalen Hurd, Curt Maggitt (who wouldn’t have been able to play had there been a game the week following the Vanderbilt win), Marlin Lane, Von Pearson all benefitted greatly from the time to heal and all had huge impacts on the outcome of tonight’s game. Senior running back Devrin Young also saw his first action since suffering a few broken ribs against UTC in October, carrying the ball four times for 25 yards.
But it wasn’t just the players listed above. Countless players on both sides of the ball really took advantage of the extended time between games to heal up. As this team builds more depth and doesn’t have to rely on starters playing as many reps as they did this year, this won’t be as big of a concern moving forward. But for Team 118, regaining their health was a big reason for their strong performance on the field yesterday.
Jalen Hurd: Umm…wow. What an outstanding performance by the Vols’ true freshman running back. Hurd would finish the night with 16 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns (one of which was a punishing 29-yard run ‘up the gut’ that saw him break multiple tackles), but could have easily doubled all of those numbers had the coaches not decided to rest him in the second half. Simply put, Hurd was unstoppable. He ran through, over and around Iowa defenders and looked like the player that most fans thought they would see when the former 5-star recruit committed to Tennessee in the spring of 2013. Jalen ran angry against the Hawkeyes and punished defenders when they dared to venture too close. For all of the praise Hurd has garnered this season, Friday’s performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl was easily his best game of the year. And that bodes very well for Tennessee’s rushing attack in 2015.
Joshua Dobbs: Tennessee fans should be absolutely thrilled with the development that Joshua Dobbs has shown over the course of the season. The sophomore quarterback put together another sensational performance against Iowa on Friday and looks to have truly taken over as the leader of the Vol offense. Dobbs would connect on 16-of-21 pass attempts for 129 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 13 rushes for an additional 76 yards and two scores. Dobbs finished with 205 total yards and accounted for three touchdowns, but the numbers don’t tell the full story. Dobbs was in control of Tennessee’s offense and looked more confident than he has at any point this season. He continues to improve at every turn, and, if yesterday was any type of indicator, Dobbs looks poised to take another huge leap forward in 2015.
Momentum: You often hear people say that football is a game of momentum. If that’s the case, then look out, because the Vols are carrying all types of it into the offseason. There’s no way to measure what kind of impact last night’s win will have moving forward, but early returns suggest that it will be significant. Everything about yesterday just made you feel good if you’re a Tennessee fan. The Vols earned their way into a January Bowl and then whipped their opponent once they got there, the majority of Tennessee’s big plays against Iowa were made by players who will return for the Vols next season, the fan support in Jacksonville made waves across the country with national media members and recruits alike…Everything about the TaxSlayer Bowl was – for lack of a better word – perfect for Tennessee.
Now, the performance doesn’t guarantee a single win for the Vols next season. But when you give a proud program like Tennessee’s a taste of victory, you can rest assured that they are going to be hungry for more. Coaches, players, administrators and fans now enter into the offseason with a generous mix of hope, optimism, and highly coveted momentum.