What a day! Touchdowns, records and style points

Marvin Westwestwords

If not for that dreaded hangover from the loss to Georgia, Tennessee might have really mashed Missouri.

Oh, you say it did? You didn’t notice the lack of focus? All you saw was 66-24?

Nine touchdowns and a field goal, a school-record 724 yards in total offense and quite a few style points were dumped on the supposedly improved Tigers. Never have the Volunteers inflicted so much damage on a Southeastern Conference foe.

Was this a message for the national playoff placement committee?

“The statement for us is that we’re a good football team playing good football,” said Josh Heupel.

Other highlights: Ninth victory, undefeated season at Neyland Stadium and school record 15th touchdown reception by Jalin Hyatt. His big numbers lead college football.

In celebration of Senior Day, Hendon Hooker delivered in high style – 25-of-34 passing for 355 yards and three TDs. He ran for 54 yards and another score. He is now No. 5 on Tennessee’s career list with 55 TD passes in a season and three-fourths. He probably won’t catch No. 1 Peyton Manning. He had 89.

Hooker did match Manning in colorful post-game showmanship. Hendon climbed a little ladder and played conductor for the Pride of the Southland band. Peyton did that on his Senior Day.

Heupel had a firm grip on the significance this Senior Day. He thanked Vol seniors and their families for “what they’ve meant to this program.”

The coach promised never to forget. He mentioned the uncertainty they endured and how “they jumped into the deep end with me. They bought in. They’ve grown. We’ve been connected in a really unique way. This thing has grown pretty quickly. Can’t say thank you enough to them. Not just what they do on the field but who they are and how they go about their business every day.”

Tennessee was slow to get going about business on Saturday. It got one touchdown in the first quarter. Bru McCoy’s sensational over-the-shoulder catch for 38 yards set up Jabari Small’s 10-yard run. Missouri got even on an assortment of Vol mistakes.

In the second quarter, a short run by Jaylen Wright put Tennessee ahead. Princeton Fant caught a Hooker pass in the end zone – while falling on his back. The Tigers got a TD to close the gap. Two Vol defensive backs did a comedy act.

Hooker’s scoring run had some art work but, just before halftime, the Vols had three poor plays a row. Hyatt dropped two passes and Hooker was sacked – and Missouri got the ball with 34 seconds remaining. A 40-yard scramble by tough quarterback Brady Cook led to a field goal. That made it 28-17.

Missouri caused severe discomfort in the sellout crowd when it cut the gap to 28-24 with 8:55 to go in the third quarter.

Question of the moment: What is going on out there?

Second question: What to do about it?

Quick answer: On the second play, Hyatt, lined up as a wingback, slipped into the flat, caught a Hooker pass and ran 68 yards. That was the beginning of the end, five unanswered touchdowns and a field goal.

Freshman Dylan Sampson was the star of a three-play, 69-yard drive that required 41 seconds. Hooker-to-Fant produced those points. Jaylen Wright scored on a 1-yard run. Doneiko Slaughter recovered a fumble and Chase McGrath kicked a field goal.

Hungry reserves took over. Joe Milton threw a 46-yarder to Ramel Keyton. Squirrel White ran down a 58-yard bomb from Milton but went down at the 1. Sampson scored with 36 seconds to go.

Judging by his expression, Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz liked that one least of all. He could have been thinking the Vols would take a knee.

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Heupel was asked before the game how his Vols would respond to the loss at Georgia. He said they didn’t just happen to win the first eight games.

“These guys have worked and earned it. Their character and who they are has been revealed every day along the way. That’s how we got here.

“Good teams don’t play perfectly but they do compete in a really positive way every Saturday.”

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Cedric Tillman was held out of action – but it wasn’t his previously injured ankle. Unanswered question.

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Tennessee has gone 14 years between undefeated seasons at home.

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Missouri’s previous six SEC games were close. Georgia defeated the Tigers, 26-22. They talked themselves into believing their defense was pretty crusty.

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Senior Day observation: Senior wide receiver Ramel Keyton, quarterback Joe Milton, linebackers Aaron Beasley and Juwan Mitchell, offensive linemen Jeremiah Crawford and Ollie Lane, cornerback Warren Burrell, safety Jaylen McCollough, defensive linemen Kurott Garland and Roman Harrison did not participate.

Could be they intend to return for another season.

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Hooker’s favorite moment in his final game at Neyland Stadium: The quarterback climbed a ladder in the southeast corner of the stadium to direct the Pride of the Southland Band in a flashback to Peyton Manning.

“That has always kind of been a dream for me just coming here and seeing Peyton stand up there and lead the band, I always thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

Manning did it on his senior day in 1997.

Hendon had an emotional day. He said he had to hold back the tears during the Vol Walk.

“It is a blessing just to be able to put the uniform on and show what God has blessed me with. It is emotional for me. Football has brought me and my family a long way.

“I want to be a positive light in my community and a positive light in people’s lives.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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