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Recap: Tennessee handles Vanderbilt, 45-21

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NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Theo Jackson got Tennessee’s Senior Day off to a start with a bang. Jackson picked off Vandy QB Mike Wright’s pass and returned it 55 yards for a score on the game’s opening drive.

Tennessee mostly cruised the rest of the way to a 45-21 victory.

The Volunteer offense didn’t get off to its typical, lightning quick start as it failed to score an offensive TD in the first quarter for the first time all season. Tennessee ran just 12 plays for 51 yards in the first quarter, but quickly made up for lost time once the second period began.

Tennessee ran the ball eight times en-route to a 12-play, 59-yard drive that ate up 4:10 of game clock and counted for the Vols’ second-longest scoring drive of the season. The Vols went on to score two more times on their two next offensive drives in the second quarter, with the TD coming on this 24-yard connection from Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman.

Vandy scored on a literally last second hail mary play at the end of the first half, but Tennessee rode its 17-point second quarter to a 24-7 halftime lead.

UT got back to it’s fast-paced, big-play fueled TD scoring ways immediately in the third quarter, needing just two plays and 33 seconds to go 75-yards and a touchdown. Hooker broke a zone-read play for 29 yards and then hit Tillman for his second receiving score on a 46-yard pass. Watch Hooker make the Vandy DBs miss on the far sideline.

Tennessee’s defense didn’t play particularly well for most of the game, but early it was at least stopping Vandy from getting into the endzone. The Vols forced five punts and a pick-6 on VU’s first six drives, but after that pre-halftime hail mary, the defense surrendered back-to-back 75-yard TD drives of 13 and 20 plays. The defense just couldn’t make the plays to get off the field at crucial times — it allowed four third-down conversions and four fourth-down conversions on just those two drives (I did a quick count, I could be wrong but that’s the numbers I came up with).

Vanderbilt’s 20-play TD drive took up nearly 11 minutes and bled over from the third quarter into the fourth, making the score 38-21 in the game’s final period.

Tennessee got the ball back and was driving down back into scoring range when Hooker left the game with what sounded like an injured hand. I was writing and didn’t see the play, but I did look up and see Hooker walking toward the locker room with his hand wrapped up (or so it seemed). Former starter Joe Milton came in and fumbled on a zone-read play at the Vanderbilt 16-yard line. No worries, though — Hooker’s hand isn’t broken per ESPN.

Byron Young got a crucial sack on the next drive for Vandy, and freshman RB Jaylen Wright carried the ball twice for 21 yards and scored a TD on a short-field, game-sealing score.

LB Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley led the Tennessee defense in tackles with 12 and 10, respectively.

Big-picture: Tennessee puts down another game scoring 40-plus points, and did most of that damage through the run game by compiling 285 yards on the ground. Both Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark, with Small scoring twice and Wright scoring once.

Cedric Tillman continued his outrageous play of late as he snagged seven passes for 110 yards and two TDs. He’s got more than 100 yards in five of his last six games, including that 200-yard game against UGA.

Tennessee finishes the regular season at 7-5 and awaits a bowl game matchup to be announced next Sunday.