Tennessee’s 45-21 football victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday at Neyland Stadium offered a different sort of evidence of how far the Vols have progressed this season.
Any sort of victory this season should be satisfying, particularly one involving six touchdowns and a double-figure margin. Yet this win felt comparatively uneven and workmanlike, compared to other one-sided outcomes.
It reflected how much UT’s rejuvenated offense has raised the standard.
In an SEC Network sideline interview afterward, UT coach Josh Heupel conceded: “We didn’t have a freaky fast start on the offensive side of the football.”
“Freaky” is a good way to describe what the Vols have been doing in the first quarter. The 162 points they’d scored during the quarter were more than any other team in the nation. Against the over-matched Commodores, the Vols struck with Theo Jackson’s 55-yard interception return on the game’s fifth play from scrimmage. But UT’s offense went scoreless during the opening 15 minutes for the first time this season.
Vanderbilt football’s Twitter account made note of the latter fact. The account was stirring up Tennessee’s social media fan base beforehand with the following posts:
“Did you know? Vanderbilt is 5-4 in its last nine games against Tennessee”
“Did you know? Vanderbilt is 3-2 in its last five games against Tennessee”
“Bowl games in the last 10 years: Vanderbilt 5, Tennessee 4."
And then there was this zinger:
“Rhodes Scholars: Vanderbilt 27, Tennessee 9."
The bowl game reference caused former Vol Jayson Swain to tag Heupel with the following encouragement: “This is the green light to hang 50.”
The Vols were on their way, building a 24-point lead in the second quarter. Jabari Small scored on a 6-yard run and Hendon Hooker connected with Cedric Tillman on a 24-yard TD pass. Chase McGrath’s 31-yard field goal seemingly capped the quarter’s scoring.
The Commodores were running out the half until Mike Wright made a final heave toward the end zone. Will Sheppard caught the football in a crowd for a 56-yard touchdown pass.
The unlikely touchdown didn’t threaten the Vols, but the score did take the edge off the momentum they were building.
The second half played out in similar fashion. The Vols struck for two touchdowns in one minute, 49 seconds of possession. The Commodores, meanwhile, countered with two methodical TD drives. The second lasted 20 plays and nearly 11 minutes.
The Vols’ final say was Jaylen Wright’s 10-yard TD run, which capped his game-high 112 yards rushing. The victory was Tennessee’s seventh of the season, and upgraded their bowl eligibility.
Regardless of their methods, the Vols achieved the day’s primary objectives.
“We continued to grow in what we do and how we do it,” Heupel said.
As for the final say from Vanderbilt football's Twitter account? FINAL: Vanderbilt 7, Tennessee 0 (Hail Marys only).
In other matters:
-Former Lady Vol basketball player Andraya Carter worked the game as the SEC Network’s sideline reporter. She reported that Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a left-hand injury, did not suffer a fracture. He did have stitches in the hand, however.
-Hooker said he will decide whether to return next season “when the time is right.”
-Small, who rushed for 103 yards and two TDs, on fellow running back Tiyon Evans entering the transfer portal: “Hate to see him go, but I want to support him.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.