The Tennessee football program took care of business in the regular-season finale.
The Volunteers dispatched Vanderbilt 45-21 on Senior Day inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
The win was Tennessee’s seventh win of the season, and the Vols will await to learn of their bowl destination.
“Important for our program that we grew throughout the course of the season,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said of the importance of first-year success. “You guys have seen our kids respond and grow throughout the course of the season. They’re great competitors, which is the first thing that you have to have inside of your program. Very consistent in that behavior.”
“The one thing that I and we have never done is as a team put a ceiling on this group and they’ve responded to that too. They believe in who they are and are confident in themselves not only as individuals, but collectively as a group too.”
The win was also big to send the senior class that was important to build the foundation of the Heupel era off the Sheild-Watkins turf with a win.
“In life, man, there’s no doubt in my mind these guys are going to be successful,” Heupel said. “Football prepares you in a really unique way for what’s going to transpire and happen in life. These guys will be highly successful individuals, the way that they’re able to step through things. For Alontae (Taylor) and all of them really, I’m grateful and indebted to them and a lot of ways for their buy-in, being great leaders and being able to communicate.”
“It’s a group of seniors that is really rare in their ability to communicate. I saw that from the first moment that I got here on campus. What was working, what wasn’t, what was broken, and what was important to them. That laid a lot of the foundation of groundwork as far as how we kind of move forward.”
Super senior Theo Jackson started his senior night in a big way as he stepped in front of a Vanderbilt pass on the opening drive and raced 55 yards to give Tennessee an early 7-0 lead.
Velus Jones Jr. had a big return the first time that he touched the ball, but the Volunteer offense was unable to get going.
Tennessee maintained a 7-0 lead after the first quarter – the first time this season that the Vol offense hadn’t found the endzone in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Things, however, got rolling for the Tennessee offense in the second quarter.
Jabari Small found the endzone with just over nine minutes to play in the second quarter with a six-yard run, and Hendon Hooker hit Cedric Tillman for a 24-yard touchdown to give the Vols a 21-0 lead.
Tennessee added a 31-yard field goal from Chase McGrath to push the lead to 24-0, but Vanderbilt got on the board with a hail mary on the last play of the half.
The Vol offense came out of the locker room in a hurry to open the third quarter.
It took just 33 seconds for Tennessee to find the endzone as Hooker found Tillman who had a great run after the catch for a 46-yard touchdown.
After Vanderbilt scored with a Rocko Griffin 13-yard run, Small and the Vols answer in just over a minute with an 11-yard scoring run from Small as Tennessee held a 38-13 lead after the third quarter.
After Mike Wright scored on a four-yard rush for the Commodores, Jaylen Wright capped the scoring in the closing minutes with a 10-yard run.
Wright had 112 yards on 15 carries to lead the Tennessee rushing attack, while Small had 103 yards on 15 carries. Hooker had 11 carries for 75 yards and went 10-of-18 passing for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
Tillman had 106 receiving yards on 11 catches.
“I believe his best football is still ahead of him,” Heupel said of Tillman. “He’s a guy that from the moment we’ve gotten here he’s just been super consistent in who he is and how he approaches the day, how he works in the weight room. He has to spend as much time as anybody watching extra film on what we’ve done offensively, and what you have to do.”
“Man, he’s got a chance to be an extremely dominant football player next year,” Heupel added. “Guy’s got a chance to do some really special things and help this program win.”
Griffin led Vanderbilt with 104 rushing yards on 30 carries, while Wright was 16-of-31 for 198 yards.
Jeremy Banks had 12 tackles to lead the Tennessee defense, while Aaron Beasley had 10 tackles. Warren Burrell and Trevon Flowers had eight tackles apiece.
“I think what we as a staff had to show these guys is what does it look like to be able to play at a winning level,” Heupel said. “Talent is one thing, but that doesn’t dictate where you go in this game or in life. The inches that you got to gain every day, the accountability that you got to have, the respect for the people you’re in the locker room with, to the coaching staff, to the ability to work through the process and just continue to fight and grow. All the consistency you have to have in your competitive nature and how you attack everything every day.”
“As we’ve gone through those stages, they’ve started to understand that we do have a chance to really be a good football team. I think they gain confidence in that. They gain trust in us as a staff but gain confidence in who they were as well. When things haven’t gone perfect, or we’ve been on the wrong side of it, we’ve tried to show them why those things transpire and things that we can control to change the outcome of some of those football games.”