On a cold night in Neyland Stadium, the Tennessee offense was anything but cold.
The Vols took care of business as they raced past South Alabama 60-14 in nonconference action.
“I thought our kids answered my question, who we are going to be and what we are going to be about as individuals and as a program,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said. “Thought they did a great job preparing, came out, and played extremely hard early in the football game. Played assignments sound and took care of business.”
The win clinched bowl eligibility for the Volunteers.
“It’s big for us because it just continues to build the momentum that we have had growing here during the course of the season,” Heupel said. “It gives you opportunities to continue to compete into December and grow, with your young players and some development that happens there, which is really important for us in year one.”
The Volunteer offense hit the gas early and never looked back.
Tennessee scored 56 points in just 14:59 of possession time and didn’t punt until the fourth quarter.
“Not just the start of the football game,” Heupel said if the quick start shows how much his squad has grown. “I think the preparation Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; we’ve continued to evolve and grow and do the things you’re supposed to do.”
“I do think the start of the football game showed that our kids are focused, and their competitive spirit is going to be the same every single week. That’s competitive maturity and growth inside our football program for sure.”
Tennessee scored 14 points in the first quarter with a one-yard touchdown from Jabari Small and a 17-yard run from Jaylen wright. The two-scoring drives took 3:57 off the clock.
“Super efficient,” Heupel said of the offense. “Structurally, they were probably a little bit different than the majority of what you saw on film going into the game. I thought our kids adjusted really well during the beginning of the football game. The run game was efficient, then able to pop a couple of big ones. The throw-and-catch was really good early in the football game too.”
The offense continued to stay hot in the second stanza as Hendon Hooker hit Cedric Tillman for a 27-yard pass. Hooker added a 24-yard touchdown pass to Princeton Fant to push the lead to 28-0 midway through the quarter.
After South Alabama got on the board in the final minute, Velus Jones Jr. took the ensuing kick 96 yards for a touchdown to push the Tennessee lead to 35-7 at the half.
Touchdowns from Small and Hooker added to the Tennessee lead in the third quarter before Len’Neth Whitehead found the endzone early in the fourth quarter.
The Volunteer added a pair of safeties to the tally in the second half to account for the final tally.
“That wasn’t so much a true question for me in the beginning of the week, as it was believing in who they are and making sure they understood what the challenge of the week was,” Heupel said. “They’re great competitors that care deeply about the Power T and their teammates around them. They’re passionate about getting better and they proved that throughout the week.”
Wright finished with 83 yards on 11 carries, while Small had 73 yards on 11 rushes. Whitehead had 60 yards on seven carries.
Hooker was 17-of-20 for 273 yards with Jones being the leading receiver had six catches for 103 yards.
Tillman continued his strong season as he had five catches for 100 yards.
Defensively, Jeremy Banks led the team with seven tackles, while Roman Harrison, Theo Jackson, and Matthew Butler had six tackles apiece.
With the postseason berth secured, the Vols turn their attention to ending the season strong in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt.
“The challenge in life, the challenge in academics, the challenge in anything we do, the challenge for our football program; it’s to finish.,” Heupel said. “Finish the season. It’s finish the game. It’s finish the rep in the weight room. It’s in everything we do. Our guys continue to compete at a really high level. They’ve grown that way.”
“You guys know I love competing with this group of guys. Continuing to grow just in our understanding of what we’re doing schematically but continuing to have great practice habits. Our best is still out in front of us. They understand that the competition really isn’t who you’re playing on Saturday. I don’t care what week it is, it’s really an intrinsic battle against yourself.”