TAMPA, Fla. – Jalen Hurd said there was no doubt he would play on Friday against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Butch Jones and some of Hurd’s teammates weren’t as sure.
Jones said Hurd, who injured his hamstring this week in practice while running, was at one point considered doubtful and wasn’t completely cleared to play until game time.
Hurd was right – he was able to play. And while the Vols (9-4) had plenty of margin for error in a 45-6 victory over Northwestern in Raymond James Stadium, Tennessee certainly was glad to have its leading rusher on the field. Hurd earned Outback Bowl MVP honors with 24 carries for 130 yards and a touchdown. If there were any ill-effects, UT’s sophomore backs certainly didn’t show them.
“I did treatment all week, and I put in my mind that I was going to play either way, and that’s what I did [today],” Hurd said.
And it was more than just a give-what-he-could type effort. For the second year in a row, Hurd and the Vols thrived against a Big Ten opponent – running around and past what was hyped as a physical defense that would cause issues for the Vols. Hurd also, quite literally, went through the defense as well. He started the fourth quarter off with a wicked stiff arm, followed by a run right through a Northwestern (10-3) tackle to help the Vols wrap up their blowout win.
Jalen Hurd is a machine. https://t.co/X9PwHbxEFH
— SaturdaysAreReserved (@SAR_Football) January 1, 2016
"Good luck bringing me down" says Hurd as he bulldozes his way down the field. https://t.co/C6hKHrPbTV
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) January 1, 2016
“Yeah, it was a decent stiff-arm, and I was just trying to get everybody live,” Hurd said. “I like it. You really can’t prepare for anything like that – just when the opportunity presents itself, you just try to make a play.”
Hurd has been symbolic of what Tennessee has looked like against both Iowa in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl and Northwestern in the 2016 Outback Bowl – bigger, stronger, tougher, faster and just better. Tennessee hit the repeat button in many senses on Friday, thoroughly dismantling the Wildcats just as the Vols did to Iowa a few hours to the east in 2015 in Jacksonville.
Perhaps the main difference this year was the slow start for the Vols. Tennessee, however, had no issue making up for it.
The Vols had four penalties for 50 yards in the opening 15 minutes and didn’t find the scoreboard until Joshua Dobbs’ 14-yard touchdown run gave the Vols a 7-0 lead with just 14 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The Vols, which also missed an early field goal, then added one from Aaron Medley, but then conceded what turned out to be the lone touchdown of the day for Northwestern, allowing the Wildcats to cut the lead to 10-6 in the second quarter.
Tennessee got the margin to 17-6 by halftime with an 11-yard Alvin Kamara touchdown run. Then the floodgates opened.
Tennessee dominated the second half even more so, scoring 28 unanswered points in the final 30 minutes with Evan Berry, who never got an opportunity in the kickoff return game, returning a late pick-6 99 yards for the exclamation mark for UT.
“I think this game showed the maturity of this football team with the heat, taking care of their bodies, the workmanlike approach that we displayed, not only here at the bowl site but back home in Knoxville,” Jones said. “Again, they had that championship mindset of really investing in victory each and every day, and I’m very, very proud of them.”
It was another special day for the orange-clad fans, who flocked to Tampa in similar numbers as they did to Jacksonville last year.
Questions remain about what UT’s ceiling is and if the Vols can take that next huge step to win at least the SEC East and maybe more in 2016. But this certainly can be a springboard and the offseason hype, again, will be huge.
“We have to learn from the experiences of a very long football season that we’ve been through, and we need to apply it to Team 120 now,” Jones added.
Any chance the Vols return to Tampa in 2017, where the national title game will be held? It’s way too early to make any kind of statement like that. But this team showed a lot down the stretch and certainly proved, for the second year in a row, that it knows how to takes care of business against the Big Ten in bowl situations.
“Absolutely,” Hurd said when asked if he’s aware that the title game will be in Tampa next year. “We’re already prepared for it.”
• Hurd became the first back in UT history to run for over 100 yards in two bowl games
• Safety Brian Randolph became UT’s all-time leader in games played (53)
• Tennessee’s four forced turnovers (all interceptions) were the most for the Vols in a bowl game since 2002 (Citrus Bowl vs. Michigan)
• Tennessee was back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1996-97