WHAT HAPPENED: Tennessee scored 36 straight points from the beginning of the second quarter to the fourth to take a 53-28 win over Vanderbilt in front of 98,327 on Saturday at Neyland Stadium in the regular season finale.
The Vols closed the season with five straight wins to finish the season 8-4, 5-3 in the SEC. Vanderbilt finishes its season 4-8, 2-6.
Tennessee scored on its opening drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs to senior wide receiver Von Pearson. The Vols drove to the Vanderbilt 8-yard line on their second possession, but stalled and had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Aaron Medley.
Vanderbilt answered on its third drive, however. Redshirt sophomore running back Ralph Webb broke loose for a 50-yard touchdown on the first play of the possession, and 10-yards were tacked on to the play on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by safety LaDarrell McNeil. Two plays later, Vanderbilt running back Darrius Sims rushed for a 7-yard touchdown.
The Vols answered with an 8-play, 66-yard drive that ended in a 6-yard touchdown run by Dobbs, However, Vanderbilt then answered with a six-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by a 36-yard pass from quarterback Kyle Shurmur to wide receiver Caleb Scott. Shurmur hit sophomore Trent Sherfield with a 12-yard touchdown pass to cut Tennessee’s lead to a17-14.
The Vols didn’t allow another point until the fourth quarter, however. Sophomore kicker Aaron Medley hit a 47-yard field goal on the next drive, and junior cornerback Cameron Sutton later returned a punt for an 85-yard touchdown to make it 27-14 with 4:36 to go in the half. Vanderbilt drove deep into Tennessee territory, but sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr. preserved the Vols’ lead with an interception at the UT 8-yard line just before the half.
Vanderbilt had a goalline stand on Tennessee’s first drive of the second half, but UT sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett sacked Shurmur in the end zone for a safety to give the Vols a 29-14 lead and the ball. That drive started on the Vanderbilt 49-yard line and ended six plays later on a 14-yard run by sophomore Jalen Hurd.
Vanderbilt went three-and-out on the next drive, Hurd broke loose for a 48-yard run on Tennessee’s ensuing possession and Dobbs hit Pearson for a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Vols a 43-14 lead.
The Vols added a 32-yard field goal from Medley and an 8-yard touchdown run by freshman Joseph Young on a seven-play, 71-yard drive with freshman quarterback Quinten Dormady at the helm to take a 53-14 lead. Shurmur hit tight end Steve Scheu for a 3-yard touchdown pass and fullback Dallas Rivers on an 8-yard touchdown pass to account for the Commodores’ two garbage-time touchdowns.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Hurd had his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season, rushing for 120 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He also caught four passes for 35 yards.
Dobbs completed 13 of 21 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, but was more efficient on the ground, rushing for 93 yards and a score on 11 carries.
Redshirt sophomore tailback Alvin Kamara rushed for 99 yards and caught two passes for 52 yards. Senior wide receiver Von Pearson caught three passes for 40 yards and two touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith caught four passes for 50 yards.
Barnett had two sacks, including one for a safety. Defensive end LaTroy Lewis and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin each had a sack. Sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr.’s interception proved critical.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN: The Vols’ running game was dominant piling up 331 yards. That number gives the Vols 2,682 yards for the season, which is the fourth highest total in UT history and the highest total since 1989. The Vols need just 29 yards in their bowl game to post the second highest rushing total in UT history. The only year that appears out of reach is 1951, when Tennessee rushed for 3,068 yards en route to a national championship.
Dobbs’ efforts seemed to be most critical in Saturday’s achievement. Vanderbilt keyed hard on the running backs early, but that opened room for Dobbs, who took advantage with four carries for 60 yards in the first half. Hurd had just 24 yards in the first half, but Dobbs’ efforts opened holes that allowed Hurd to rush for 96 yards after the break.
Defensively, the Vols had numerous breakdowns against both the run and the pass that allowed Vanderbilt 14 points and 276 yards in the first half. They cut that down in the third quarter, though, allowing just 15 yards in that period. The Commodores had a total of 16 yards on their first four second-half drives before the Vols put their second-teamers in and allowed Vanderbilt two late touchdowns.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: After a 3-4 start, the Vols were expected to win their last five games against the bottom half of the SEC East. They did what they were expected to do in their last five games, but in some way that was impressive in itself after Tennessee blew leads in three of its four losses. By taking care of business at the season’s end, the Vols have eight wins for the first time since winning the SEC East in 2007.
Tennessee’s last five opponents were much easier to put away than Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas were, but all the same, the Vols managed to do it and didn’t allow the ghosts of old losses to be a problem. They played to their strengths, stepped up defensively and relied on their dominant run game. The Vols never became a truly great passing team, but that didn’t cost them much down the stretch.
None of Tennessee’s final five opponents are bowl eligible. Their only two wins against bowl eligible teams came against Georgia and MAC opponent Bowling Green. On paper, from a strictly football sense, that should make the Vols a less attractive option for bowls than the SEC West teams they’ll be vying for bowl position against (Arkansas, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M). However, the Tennessee brand is bigger than that of any of those teams, with the possible exception of LSU, and Vols fans are likely to travel better with their team on the upswing.
The Outback, Music City, Belk, Liberty and Texas Bowls all appear to be viable options for Tennessee, and even the Citrus Bowl doesn’t appear to be totally out of the question. One way or another, the Vols know they will be a team everyone wants to come to its bowl game.