Tennessee took care of business Saturday, defeating Vanderbilt 45-21 in the regular season finale at Neyland Stadium.
Here are four quick takeaways.
Seniors Show Out On Senior Day
Josh Heupel talked at length this week about his appreciation for this senior class and their buy in before the season.
A handful of Vol seniors have played their best football of their career this season and it continued in Saturday’s win.
Tennessee opened the scoring when senior Theo Jackson jumped in front of a Mike Wright pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. It was the STAR’s first career pick six and it included a sweet juke move to get past Wright.
The defensive back from Nashville recorded four tackles in the win.
Cedric Tillman continued his career season Saturday by hauling in six catches for 106 yards and two touchdown. Tillman was open behind the defense for another score in the first half but he couldn’t connect with Hendon Hooker.
The Las Vegas native needs 69 yards in the bowl game to become the first Tennessee receiver to total 1,000 yards in a season since 2012.
Alontae Taylor recorded six tackles while Matthew Butler made two.
Tennessee Offense Starts Slow, Finds Rhythm
The two consistent themes for Tennessee this season have been its offense starting fast and its defense struggling on third downs.
For the first time all season, Tennessee’s offense did not score a touchdown in the first quarter as Jackson’s pick six were the Vols’ only points in the opening frame.
It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities either. The Vols first offensive drive started at Vanderbilt’s 21-yard line but the Commodores stopped Tennessee with a turnover on downs.
Even in a game that saw Hendon Hooker struggle and throw for just 156 yards, Tennessee’s offense found plenty of success.
Tennessee scored 17 points in the second quarter mostly due to success on the ground. Jabari Small ran for 66 yards in the first half while Hooker threw for just 55.
Even scoring 17 points in the second quarter it didn’t feel like Tennessee’s offense completely found its rhythm. That changed in the third quarter.
Tennessee went 75 yards on two plays and 33 seconds to open the second half and scored 21 points in the second half.
The Vols offense looked like it has against lesser opponents all season, moving the ball with ease.
Hooker Leans On His Legs
Hendon Hooker has proved he’s more than just a good runner this season. The Virginia Tech transfer has been one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks this season, but Hooker wasn’t great with his arm, especially early, in Saturday’s game.
Credit Vanderbilt for taking away some of the quick throws Tennessee likes to throw, but the Vols passing attack had one of their lesser performances of the season.
With those passing struggles, Hooker ended up leaning on his legs the most he has since he came off the bench against Pittsburgh.
Hooker totaled 75 yards on 11 rushes. It marked Hooker’s third biggest rushing performance of the season behind only Ole Miss and Missouri. Hooker’s runs were a healthy mix of designed runs and scrambles.
The veteran quarterback did his best Houdini impression on a few runs including third and fourth down scrambles that moved the sticks.
On the other end, Hooker’s 156 passing yards were the least of his season.
Hooker exited the game in the fourth quarter after taking a hit while pitching the ball. It looked like Hooker’s hand was cut and bleeding. The senior went straight to the locker room following the injury.
Odds and Ins
For the second straight game, Tennessee’s third down defense was strong Saturday. The Commodores converted just four-of-16 attempts. A good mark for a defense that’s struggled getting off the field all season.
Like last week against South Alabama, the Vols struggled on fourth down as the Commodores converted five-of-seven attempts.
Tennessee wasn’t any better on the other end either, converting just two-of-eight third down attempts.
Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley both turned in strong games Saturday after struggling the last few weeks. Beasley made 12 tackles and 1.5 for a loss. Banks tied Beasley with a game high 12 tackles though did have a patented Banks’ late hit that extended a Vanderbilt drive.
Vanderbilt’s offense spent 20:46 on the field in the second half thanks to a 13 play, 7:59 touchdown drive and a 20 play, 10:55 touchdown drive.
I also have to touch on the Hail Mary that Vanderbilt completed on the last play of the first half. The Vols’ played cover four, dropping just four players deep as three defenders stood 15 yards down the field defending no one.
A few senior day notes on players that still have eligibility. Cade Mays and Alontae Taylor each went through senior day activities before the game. Quarterback Hendon Hooker and offensive guard Jerome Carvin did not go through the pregame ceremonies.
With the win over Vanderbilt, Tennessee posted just its fifth seven-plus win regular season since Phillip Fulmer retired.
The 7-5 regular season record ties Josh Heupel with Lane Kiffin for the best record for the first year Tennessee coach since Phillip Fulmer and Tennessee won nine regular season games in 1993.