Vols set to go bowling after 24-17 win over Vanderbilt Commodores
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vols will have plenty of mistakes to fix and injuries that will need to be healed over the next few weeks after narrowly pulling out an underwhelming 24-17 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday evening.
But that option is significantly better than the alternative of saying good-bye.
After three seasons in a row of falling one game short of postseason eligibility, the Vols finally found win No. 6, and are now eligible to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
“I’m just proud of everyone,” said head coach Butch Jones. “It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get it done. We were behind with injuries and our players just kept working.
“I thought this game kind of summarized our season. Great resiliency – we found a way to win the football game. We always talk about impactful plays impacting the game and I thought our special teams were outstanding.”
A sloppy contest was, indeed, highlighted by several big plays on special teams from Tennessee. None were bigger than Cam Sutton’s 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter that put the Vols up 7-0. An Aaron Medley field goal made it 10-0 in the first as well and it was a beautiful 60-yard punt in the fourth quarter by Matt Darr that helped preserve UT’s late lead.
“We always talk about complimentary football in our program,” said Sutton, who topped UT’s total punt return yardage from the previous 11 games on that one return. “You know, the offense was struggling early in the game and special teams were able to capitalize and get the game going.”
Tennessee’s offense never fully found its stride against a Vanderbilt defense that came into the game statistically ranked among the worst in the conference. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs had his worst day passing the ball of the season, but found ways to make impactful plays on the ground.
The sophomore ran for 91 yards and touchdown runs of 8 and 1 yards. Playing without running back Jalen Hurd (upper-body injury) for much of the game, it was Dobbs, with some help from reserve running back Marlin Lane (51 yards), who got some crucial carries late to help the Vols milk the clock.
“He found a way to win a football game,” Jones said of Dobbs. “That’s critical from our quarterback position. Yeah, we need to talk about some of the errant throws and taking care of the football and I thought he pressed for the first time. I thought Josh was trying to make some plays – and he’s a competitor – but when we needed him down the stretch, he stepped up and he delivered.”
“Obviously we have some things to clean up,” added Dobbs. “We were able to move the ball at times and were able to go down and put it in the end zone and the defense had our backs all night and were able to hold them to less points than we scored, so we got the ball and we’re definitely excited about that.”
And while both Jones and the players acknowledged some aspects of the sloppy play, that wasn’t their focus after the game. It was the fact that they don’t have to say good-bye and the fact that they will have an opportunity to improve and fix some of those issues with a bowl game now on the horizon.
“It’s very rewarding,” Jones said. “That’s why you coach. You coach to influence young people, create positive change and build a culture. They didn’t want it to end.
“We talked about our life expectancy and fighting to live two, three more weeks. I told them we had a team meeting Monday at three o’clock. It could be to go over our bowl schedule or it could be goodbye. And it kind of hit them. They said ‘coach we don’t want to say goodbye.’ Again, this group has been resilient all year.”