Tennessee football rounded out the 2021 regular season with a 45-21 Senior Day victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols had a pair of 100-yard rushers for the second time this year as freshman Jaylen Wright and sophomore Jabari Small took 15 carries each for 112 and 103 yards, respectively. Tennessee averaged 6.8 yards per rush, totaling 285 yards on the ground for its fourth game above 250 yards rushing this season.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker delivered another efficient performance for UT, producing 231 total yards (156 passing, 75 rushing) and passing for a pair of touchdowns. The signal caller has thrown a touchdown in 11 consecutive games, matching Erik Ainge (2004-05) and Peyton Manning (1995-96) for the fourth-longest streak in program history.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Cedric Tillman led all receivers Saturday with six catches for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Las Vegas native has a touchdown catch in each of his last six games, becoming the first Vol to accomplish the feat since Joey Kent in 1995. Tillman is also the first Vol to record 100-plus receiving yards in three consecutive games since Da'Rick Rogers did so in 2011.
Tennessee's linebacking duo of Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley led the defensive unit with 12 and 10 tackles, respectively. Banks has registered 108 stops this season, becoming the first Vol to post 100 or more tackles since Jalen Reeves-Maybin had 105 in 2015.
Super senior defensive back Theo Jackson opened the scoring with his first career pick-six on Vanderbilt's fifth play from scrimmage. The Nashville native jumped the comeback route, picking off Vanderbilt QB Mike Wright's pass to the left sideline and returning it 55 yards to the checkerboard. Redshirt senior placekicker Chase McGrath knocked the PAT through the uprights—his 125th consecutive made extra point—to give the Vols a 7-0 edge with 12:20 left in the first quarter. Jackson's pick-six was Tennessee's third interception returned for a touchdown this season, its most since housing four picks in 2013.
Tennessee (7-5, 4-4 SEC) doubled its lead in the second quarter with a 12-play, 59-yard touchdown drive that used 4:10 of game clock. Small punctuated the possession with a six-yard touchdown rush up the middle before McGrath's extra point made it 14-0 Vols with 9:05 remaining in the first half. Wright garnered a bulk of the touches on the scoring series, taking four carries for 27 yards and picking up three first downs.
On UT's next offensive possession, Tillman reeled in his eighth touchdown of the season with a 24-yard scoring grab over the middle. The catch capped a nine-play, 53-yard drive for the Big Orange and McGrath connected on his third PAT of the afternoon to put UT up 21-0 on the Commodores with 4:22 on the first half clock.
After UT forced a Vanderbilt three-and-out on the ensuing drive, the Vols marched their way into field goal range—aided by Hooker's 28 rushing yards on back-to-back plays in the series. McGrath stepped up and connected on a 31-yard field goal try to give Tennessee a 24-0 edge with 42 seconds remaining in the half.
Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8 SEC) broke up the shutout with a 56-yard Hail Mary on the final play of the first half. Quarterback Mike Wright escaped the pocket and scrambled to his right before launching the ball to the end zone, where sophomore wideout Will Sheppard snared it between a pair of Tennessee defenders and fell into the end zone as time expired. The Vols went into halftime up 24-7.
The Vols responded to Vanderbilt's end-of-half score with a quick two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. Hooker broke off a 29-yard run on a read option before delivering the ball to Tillman for a 46-yard catch-and-run scoring strike. McGrath was true on the extra point, and UT took a 31-7 lead with 14:27 to go in the third quarter.
The Commodores emerged from halftime ready to trade blows, putting together a touchdown drive of their own with a 13-play, 75-yard series that consumed 7:59 of game clock. Running back Rocko Griffith took his ninth carry of the drive 13 yards into the end zone to cut the deficit to 31-13. Vanderbilt had its sights set on a two-possession ballgame, but Wright's pass attempt on the two-point conversion fell incomplete.
UT's quick-strike offense extended the Tennessee lead yet again on the next series, using four plays to go 65 yards in just 76 seconds. Hooker was 3-for-3 for 40 yards on the drive while Small toted two carries for 25 yards, finishing the series with an 11-yard rush to the right side for his second touchdown of the night. McGrath's fifth PAT gave the Big Orange a 38-13 edge with 5:12 remaining in the third.
Vanderbilt drained 10:55 of game clock with an extensive 20-play, 75-yard drive, capped by Mike Wright's four-yard QB keeper for a touchdown. The Commodore signal caller then rifled the ball to fifth-year senior Chris Pierce Jr. in the back of the end zone on the two-point conversion to make it a 38-21 ballgame.
After Byron Young's sack caused a Vanderbilt turnover on downs at the VU16, Jaylen Wright broke through with a 10-yard touchdown run to give UT its sixth 40-point performance of the season. McGrath knocked through his sixth PAT of the night to cement the game's final score, 45-21 in favor of the Big Orange. Wright finished the contest with a career-high 112 yards to lead all rushers on Saturday.
Tennessee will now await its bowl destination after reaching postseason eligibility with a 7-5 regular-season record in its first season under head coach Josh Heupel. Bowl announcements are set for Sunday, Dec. 5.