~ from UTAD
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee scored in all three phases of the game and put up points in lightning-quick fashion, racing past South Alabama, 60-14, on a chilly Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
With the win, the Vols (6-5, 3-4 SEC) secured bowl eligibility for the 54th time in program history. That feat ranks as the fifth-most nationally in college football history.
UT needed only 14:59 of possession time to score its first 56 points vs. the Jaguars (5-6, 2-5 Sun Belt). The Big Orange didn’t punt until the 8:17 mark in the fourth quarter and forced USA to punt on six of its 13 possessions, including six of its first eight. It also ended two Jaguar drives on downs and two more via safeties. In total, South Alabama had a 1-for-16 night on third-down conversions, marking the best effort of the season for the Big Orange defense.
Tennessee’s 60-point effort on offense was its highest since rolling up a 63-7 result vs. Missouri in Knoxville on Nov. 19, 2016. The Big Orange accumulated 561 yards of total offense (311 passing/250 rushing) vs. USA, averaging 7.8 yards per play and generating 28 first downs.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker was laser sharp, completing 17 of 20 pass attempts for 273 yards and two touchdowns and added 21 yards and a score on the ground. It marked the 10th straight game he passed for a TD.
Redshirt senior Velus Jones Jr. had a stellar evening, grabbing six passes for 103 yards and returning a kick 96 yards for a score. He finished with a career-high 246 all-purpose yards, including 96 on kickoff returns and 47 on punt returns to go along with his receiving total.
The return was Jones’ second-career kickoff return for a touchdown and his first at Tennessee. His only other previous kickoff return touchdown came while he was playing at Southern Cal (100 yards vs. Fresno State, Aug. 31, 2019).
Redshirt junior Cedric Tillman joined Jones Jr. in the 100-yard receiving club, hitting the century mark on the nose via five catches. A second-quarter scoring catch gave the redshirt junior wideout a touchdown in his fifth straight game.
Defensively, redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks led the Vols with seven tackles. Senior defensive back Theo Jackson, junior defensive end Roman Harrison and senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler had six stops each and registered two, 1.5 and one tackle for a loss, respectively. They contributed to a total of 13 Big Orange TFLs on the night, marking the fifth time this season the team has had 10 or more, which is the first time achieving that feat since the 1996 season.
After forcing a three-and-out on South Alabama’s game-opening drive, Tennessee’s offense needed only two minutes to find the end zone. Hooker connected with three different receivers for 37 yards, and sophomore running back Jabari Small racked up 25 on the ground, including a burst for 10 yards leaving him just short of the goal-line and then the scoring plunge one play later. Senior Chase McGrath’s extra point kick put the Vols up 7-0 with 11:13 left in the first quarter.
Another UT defensive stop, and the Vols were back in the end zone even quicker on their second series, taking only 1:57 off the clock. This time it was freshman running back Jaylen Wright rambling in from 17 yards out. McGrath’s PAT made it 14-0 Big Orange with 6:14 to go in the opening stanza.
The Jaguars were within striking distance early in the second period, but the Tennessee defense kept USA out of the end zone on four plays from the 10 and inside it. Senior safety Trevon Flowers came up with big plays on third and fourth down, getting a quarterback hurry to rush a potential touchdown toss and then his first-career sack, taking down Desmond Trotter to end the threat.
After taking over at their own 13, the Vols marched 87 yards in eight plays, taking 2:38 to go up 21-0. Hooker completed four passes for 62 yards on the drive, including a 27-yard scoring strike to Tillman. He is the first Vol with a TD reception in five consecutive contests since Josh Malone did so over the last five games of 2016. McGrath booted the PAT to make it 21-0 with 10:37 remaining in the second frame.
After Tennessee forced South Alabama to punt for the third time, Jones Jr. set the Vols up for another score with an exciting 33-yard return. UT changed the digits on the scoreboard again in only three plays and 55 total seconds. The decisive blow was a 24-yard toss across the middle to redshirt senior tight end Princeton Fant for six. It was the longest reception of his career and marked his first touchdown of the season and second of his UT tenure. McGrath’s PAT made it 28-0 with 6:41 left in the half.
The Jaguars finally got on the board with 1:36 to go before the half. Tight end Lincoln Sefcik hauled in a three-yard pass from Trotter to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive and cut the deficit to 28-7 with Diego Guajardo’s PAT tacked on.
UT restored its 28-point advantage in a hurry, though, as Jones Jr. electrified fans by cradling the ensuing kickoff and weaving his way 96 yards to the end zone. McGrath’s extra point made it 35-7 Vols with 1:18 left before intermission. The house call was the first by a Big Orange return man since Ty Chandler took one back 91 yards vs. Indiana State on Sept. 9, 2017.
Small hit pay-dirt for the second time of the evening with 12:06 left in the third. After Tillman hauled in a 43-yard pass from Hooker to move Tennessee into the red zone, the sophomore running back bulldozed the pile three yards into the end zone two plays later. McGrath’s PAT boosted his squad’s lead to 42-7.
The Vols struck again with 7:29 to go in the third period. With the eight-play, 64-yard drive aided by an outstanding 41-yard catch by Jones Jr., Hooker called his own number and scored from six yards out. McGrath’s PAT boosted the lead to 49-7.
Joe Milton III came on at quarterback in the fourth quarter and the Vol offense continued its scoring precision. The redshirt junior marched UT 80 yards in six plays, taking only 2:06 off the clock, with redshirt freshman running back Len’Neth Whitehead bursting into the checkerboard from five yards out. McGrath’s kick pushed the count to 56-7.
USA put its second touchdown on the board with 11:02 left in the contest. Trotter hit Jalen Tolbert with a short pass, and the wide receiver spun around and outraced defenders 62 yards to the end zone. Guajardo added the extra point to cut the gap to 56-14.
Tennessee’s defense completed a home team trifecta with 6:37 remaining, giving the Big Orange points on offense, special teams and defense. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Kurott Garland chased down and collared Trotter in the end zone for a safety and his first-career sack to make the score 58-14.
The Vols halted South Alabama on the next drive and earned points via another safety. The snap to the Jaguar punter sailed over his head and out the back of the end zone with 2:43 remaining for the game’s final points, making it 60-14 UT.
The Vols close out the 2021 regular season next Saturday, as they welcome the Vanderbilt Commodores to Shields-Watkins Field. Kickoff is slated for 3:45 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by SEC Network and available via the Vol Network statewide on the radio and worldwide through streaming on UTSports.com.