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Vols become bowl eligible with 60-14 win over South Alabama

The Vols crushed the Jaguars en route to earning their first bowl appearance in two years.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

After winning just three games in 2020, the Tennessee Volunteers (6-5, 3-4) are bowl-bound thanks to a 60-14 win over the South Alabama Jaguars (5-6, 2-5).

Hendon Hooker was magnificent again, throwing for 273-yards and two touchdowns, Velus Jones Jr. provided one of the most exciting kickoff returns in recent memory, and the Tennessee defense came up with several plays during the game, all which were major contributors in the big win.

This year will mark the program’s 54th bowl appearance, which is the fifth-most in NCAA history.

Tennessee won the toss but deferred, so South Alabama received the ball to start the game.

The drive didn’t last long. Omari Thomas took down Terrion Avery for a five-yard loss on 2nd 8 and the Jaguars couldn’t convert the subsequent 3rd and 13. Tennessee took over at its own 38 after a seven-yard return by Jones Jr..

It took the Vols two plays before they found themselves in Jaguar territory. South Alabama was able to force a 3rd and 1 a few plays later, but Jabari Small found a gap and gained four-yards for the first down. The Vols faced another third down -this time a 3rd and 10- a couple of plays later and this time it was Jones Jr. who took a screen pass 14-yards down the right sideline for the first down at the Jaguar 19. Josh Heupel decided to run it with Small three straight times and the sophomore running back rewarded his head coach with the 19-yards that were needed along with the touchdown to make it a 7-0 game with 11:13 left in the first quarter after Chase McGrath’s PAT.

South Alabama’s second drive started at its own 25, but they hit their own big play as Desmond Trotter hit Jalen Wayne down the left sideline for a 28-yard gain to the Tennessee 45. But the Jaguars offense sputtered and eventually punted the ball back to the Vols, who’s next drive started at their own 12.

It looked the Vols were about to go three-and-out, but Hendon Hooker was able to connect with Jacob Warren over the middle for a 14-yard gain. A 28-yard run by Small and a 15-yard defensive pass interference penalty on Devin Rockette gave the Vols a fresh set of downs at the Jaguar 28. Jaylen Wright broke of a 17-yard run a couple of plays later and rumbled into the end zone to give the Vols a 13-7 lead. McGrath’s PAT went through the uprights and the Vols now led, 14-0, with 6:14 to go in the first quarter.

Jalen Tolbert made a ridiculous one-handed catch for 37-yards down the left sideline on South Alabama’s first play of the third drive, which put them in Vols territory at the 38.

Tennessee’s defense was able to force a 3rd and 13 but Trotter gained seven-yards on a scramble which set the Jaguars up with a manageable 4th and the 6 at the UT34. Trotter then completed a 13-yard pass to Tolbert to get the first down.

USA converted another fourth down -this time it was a 4th and 1- a few plays later to set up a goal-to-go situation from the UT10. Trotter missed a golden opportunity to hit a wide-open Tolbert in the end zone for a touchdown, but threw the ball into the dirt instead of Tolbert’s hands. Kane Wommack decided to go for it for a third time on fourth down, but Tennessee’s defense came through with a stop as Trevon Flowers took down Trotter for the sack.

The Vols began their next drive at their own 8 and were making good progress, but a holding call jeopardized the drive by creating a 2nd and 14 that led to a 3rd and 11. Hooker saved the day with a sensational 15-yard run that involved juking one defender and breaking multiple tackles as he passed the first down marker.

That play opened the flood gates for the Vols offense. Wright gained 12-yards on a run and then Hooker hit Jones for 21-yards and Cedric Tillman for a 27-yard touchdown to make it a 21-0 game with 10:37 left in the first half after McGrath’s PAT.

South Alabama had to start its next drive at its own 1 after Caullin Lacey forgot to call for fair catch on the kickoff, but Avery bailed his offense out with an 11-yard run on 2nd and 10. Theo Jackson ended any hope of any more yards with back-to-back tackles -including a three-yard loss on 2nd and 9- that killed the drive.

Jones Jr. returned Jack Brooks’ punt 33-yards, which started the Vols’ next drive at the Jaguar 36. Hooker completed a 16-yard pass to Tillman, Small ran it for six-yards, and then Hooker found Princeton Fant over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown pass to make it a 27-0 game. It was a classic, quick-strike drive from the Tennessee offense that now led, 28-0, with 6:41 to go in the first half after McGrath’s PAT went through the uprights.

Tennessee thought it had the stop on South Alabama’s next drive, but the Jags ran a fake punt that caught the Vols off guard and gained 26-yards. Wayne came through with another big catch on the next play that set up a 1st and goal at the Tennessee 6.

The Jags didn’t squander this opportunity. Trotter lofted a three-yard touchdown pass to Lincoln Sefcik and Diego Guajardo nailed the PAT to make it a 28-7 game with 1:36 left in the first half.

Jones Jr. ripped through the Jaguars’ kick return team on the ensuing kickoff and was able to take it 96-yards to the house for Tennessee’s fifth touchdown of the game. The Vols led, 35-7, with 1:18 left in the first half after McGrath’s PAT.

The Jaguars offense couldn’t get anything done and went into the half down, 35-7. Tennessee would receive the ball to start the second half.

But Tennessee didn’t receive the ball to start the second half because South Alabama pulled off an onside kick, which gave it the ball at its own 47.

Tennessee’s drive batted down a Trotter pass then sacked him on third down to keep the Jaguars from doing any damage, though. Flowers called for fair catch and caught Brooks’ 38-yard punt at the Tennessee 16, which is where Hooker and the Tennessee offense started its first drive of the second half.

A 43-yard bomb from Hooker to Tillman keyed a seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown run by Small to make it a 42-7 game with 12:06 to go in the third quarter. It took the Vols less than two minutes to score their sixth touchdown of the game.

Hooker ran for a touchdown on Tennessee’s next drive to make it a 49-7 game and then Joe Milton came in for relief to start the fourth quarter. Len’Neth Whitehead then proceeded to run it in for a touchdown to make it a 56-7 game. South Alabama scored a touchdown to make it a 56-14 game, but then the Vols recorded two safeties to make it a 60-14 game. The Vols would go on to win, 60-14, and get to 6-5 on the season.

The Vols are now bowl eligible, but the regular season isn’t over yet. They will host the Vanderbilt Commodores. Kickoff is currently set for 3:45PM EST.