Jacksonville, FL – The Tennessee football team had been waiting for a bowl game for quite a while. The Vols made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Tennessee claimed a 45-28 victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl at Jacksonville’s Everbank Field on Friday evening, the first bowl victory for the Volunteers since 2008.
Joshua Dobbs and the Volunteers raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and extended it 35-7 at the half. The fast start allowed Tennessee to seize the momentum and control the game from the opening kick.
“We wanted to start fast,” Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones said. “We thought that was critical in this game. We did start fast. I believe we only had three third downs in the entire first half. When we’re moving on offense, we’re generating first downs on first and second down. Our run efficiency on first down was very good. I thought Josh managed the offense.”
The fast start was much to the delight of the crowd, which a large majority was supporting the Tennessee orange.
“Well, it started at the Vol Walk,” Jones said. “We say we have the best fans in the country. That was a great illustration with this bowl game. It actually started at the hotel. The energy, I tell you, it started back in Knoxville. When we went to Gatlinburg. Our kids could see. It’s special to play football at the University of Tennessee, but it also comes with a very high standard and a very high price. We filled the stadium in orange. It means everything to our football program.”
Dobbs finished the game with 76 yards rushing on 13 carries and went 16-of-21 passing for 129 yards, and the sophomore accounted for three total touchdowns (two rushing and one passing). For his performance, Dobbs was named the game’s MVP, but was quick to point out this is just the beginning of the comeback for the Tennessee program.
“Coming into the season, our goal was obviously to make it a bowl game, and when we got there to win it, as we did today,” Dobbs said. “This is the start of a foundation for something big going on in Tennessee, momentum we can carry into the off‐season. Start of something big, a lot of momentum going into next year.”
Tennessee also received a big boost from freshman running back Jalen Hurd. Hurd scored the game’s first two touchdowns (3-yards and 29-yards) to push Tennessee’s lead to 14-0.
“Jalen is an individual who takes great pride in his performance,” Jones said. “He had that look in his eye, as did our entire football team. But Jalen really set the temperament of the game for us, getting yards after contact, finishing runs. He just had that look in his eye of give me the ball, coach. He earned every yard he got today. Very proud of him.”
Hurd finished the game with 122 yards on 16 carries.
The Vols also reached into the bag of tricks in the first quarter as Marlin Lane took a handoff then found Vic Wharton for a 49-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 21-0.
“We always have a catalog or inventory of trick plays that we rep throughout the course of the year,” Jones said. “We definitely wanted to run that play. Had to be on a certain hash. Mike did a great job. He kept saying, we get the ball in this left hash, we’re going to run it.”
After Dobbs capped off Tennessee’s fourth possession with an eight-yard score, Iowa got on the board with a Mark Weisman 3-yard touchdown with just under four minutes to play in the first half. However, Dobbs led the Volunteer offense down the field and took a 35-7 lead into the second half as Dobbs found Von Pearson for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
Pearson set a new career-high seven catches for 75 yards.
The third quarter saw Dobbs score on an 11-yard run and Aaron Medley add a 28-yard field goal. The Hawkeyes managed to put 21 points on the board, with two of those coming in the final four minutes when the game had already been decideda
The win gives Tennessee the first winning season since 2009 with a 7-6 record.
“We still have a long way to go,” Jones said.” But we’re making progress. We talked about building this program brick by brick. We put another brick into the foundation today. The main thing of anything of setting a culture in place is learning how to win. Not just hoping to win, believing you’re going to win and also deserving to win.”