Credit Josh Heupel. He had this thing figured out. Those who stayed wanted to play. And play they did.
Tennessee, minus a sizable crowd of transfers and opt-outs, overwhelmed Iowa, 35-0, in the Citrus Bowl. Nico passed his first test with flying colors. Dylan Sampson established himself as the running back of the future – if there was ever any doubt.
Everybody knew James Pearce had talent. He took a giant step toward stardom.
Iamaleava tied a UT bowl record with three rushing touchdowns. And he was 12-of-19 passing for 151 yards, one TD and no interceptions, plenty of poise, no panic. He was named the Citrus Bowl MVP.
Iowa produced one threat. Andre Turrentine snuffed it out with an interception in the end zone. After that, the Volunteers dominated. There was a glaring difference in speed. Many young players participated. The Tennessee defense made the Iowa offense look worse than its bad reputation. The Hawkeyes were 2-of-15 on third downs.
Iowa won 10 this season by the sheer force of defensive will. The Vols successfully broke that will. Heupel actually hit the brakes to keep from running up the score.
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Sampson rushed for 133 yards on 20 carries. Cam Seldon added 55 yards. Pearce strip-sacked Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill and caused a fumble that led to an immediate Tennessee touchdown. This big Vol, 6-5 and 242, later picked off a pass and scampered 52 yards for a score.
UT exploited weaknesses in Iowa’s defense, supposedly one of the best in college football. The Hawkeyes had permitted an average of 13.2 points per game. The Vols outgained the losers, 383 yards to 173.
Nico lived up to the hype.
“I just think, as a young player, the moment, nothing’s too big for him.” Heupel said. “He never got rattled. He was very in control. He does a great job relating to all the guys at every position. He’s already a dynamic leader. Really pleased with his poise and his playmaking ability today.
“Thought he did a great job, just controlling everything, communications, the huddle, the mechanics, operations, controlling our run-game protections. All of it, did a fantastic job. Made a bunch of plays with his arm and his feet. Special player.”
Heupel put some praise on Pearce.
“James has a great football future. He’s great player right now, but he’s got a chance to be extremely special. There is still room for growth. I say all of that, he’s a dynamic playmaker. He’s really rare.”
The coach smiled at the thought of the Pearce interception.
“Athletic enough to go make a play… nothing looks better than a big man like him running down the sidelines.”
There were so many other things for Heupel to appreciate. He saw the victory as the end of the 2023 season, and how much better 9-4 is than 8-5 would have been. He saw the success as a very important start to 2024. He said it speaks to the team culture, “the type of competitors that we have that buckle their chin straps and wear the Power T on the side of their helmet.
“You look at all of the young guys that got so many meaningful snaps today. I think it speaks to the future being extremely bright.”
The coach said every team is different, that every season starts anew, but his optimism shows.
“This is a group that I love being around and if we can continue to be great teammates, care about the people around us more than we care about ourselves, we can pour into each other, we compete extremely hard every single day, while having as much fun as we possibly can, the future is extremely bright.
“The challenge is great. The standard is to win championships at Tennessee. Nobody shies away from that. We got to continue to grow to put ourselves in position to do that.”
Senior safety Jaylen McCollough, one who stayed to play, couldn’t look ahead. This was his final game in orange.
“I’m glad we got to go out like that, just shout out to my team,” he said. “We prepared the right way for this one.”
Three of the five starters from the September secondary were not in the bowl game. Jaylen noted that the Vols had no problem handling Iowa’s offense.
“It’s a testimony to our culture. We always talk about ‘next man up’ and a whole bunch of guys stood up today. We were successful and we pitched a shutout which is crazy to do in a bowl game. I’m thankful we got the W.”
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org