NASHVILLE, TN – Tennessee arrived in Nashville the day after Christmas with confidence, positive momentum, and hope.
The Vols left Nashville with a frustrating reality check.
Josh Heupel’s first season at the helm of Rocky Top ended Thursday night in a 48-45 loss to Purdue in extra time in the Music City Bowl.
“Disappointed with the result,” Heupel said after the game. “Disappointed for all the locker rooms tonight. They left everything on the pitch. Disappointed with the result.
“Disappointed for (our players) tonight. And disappointed for our fans with the outcome of the game as well. Our fanbase passion is simply unsurpassed in any part of college football. They’re on fire, man. Getting on the buses was a blast tonight. special scene, no matter how beautiful I’ve ever been a part of it. “
Tennessee lost to Purdue despite leading 21-7 at the end of the first quarter. The Boilermakers finished the Vols 16-0 in the second quarter to take the lead 23-21 at half time. They then ruled out UT in overtime to set up a 39-yard winning field goal.
The Vols beat Purdue 663 to 627, were better on the third down, won the battle for the turnover of two and kept them three field goals in the red zone. However, Tennessee failed to finish 7-6 in the season.
“The journey was incredible,” Heupel said. “When we took over the program 11 months ago, where it was and where it is today, two completely different (programs). Proud of these guys. They’ve come this far.
“A special thanks to our elders. Guys who stayed, competed, who accepted, who drove. They showed what the spirit of a volunteer is.”
The touchdown that wasn’t there
Purdue closed Tennessee to overtime, but it did so in a controversial way.
The Vols received the ball first in extra time and managed to reach the goal line. Fourth and one goal, Jaylen Wright took a handoff and seemed to score. But the referees whistled prematurely and called the play dead.
“They said forward progress had been halted,” Heupel said. “It looked like the whistle blew after extending the ball.”
“I was initially excited, because I thought we had scored,” added Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker. “It was a difficult call. I feel that my teammates and I gave our best and the result did not turn out as we wanted ”.
Fights of the second quarter
The fights of the second quarter proved to be the difference in the game. After taking the lead 21-7 in the first quarter, the Vols scored 16-0 in the second frame to go to the interval two points down.
Tennessee gained 198 yards in the first quarter of 17 plays. He was good enough for 21 points and averaging 11.6 yards per game.
Out of 22 plays in the second quarter, the Vols earned 60 yards out of 22 plays, didn’t score and averaged 2.72 yards per play.
“Completely out of the ordinary,” Heupel said of the second quarter. “It didn’t seem to me that in the second quarter we had done some simple things very well. We have a couple of things that have a chance to be played explosively. We do not perform them. We have some simple things in third-down situations that we don’t do. “
Purdue earned 155 yards in the second quarter out of 22 plays for an average of 7.1 yards per play and 16 points.
“Not taking anything away from Purdue, but we weren’t very good that quarter. I thought there were some things – maybe the layoff – (which were) just unusual for us from how we were playing later in the football season tonight.
An afternoon to forget
Many Vols fought in the Music City Bowl, but Willie Martinez’s defensive full-backs had a day to forget.
Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw for 534 yards and five touchdowns on a 26-for-47 pass to light up the Tennessee secondary despite throwing three interceptions.
“They made some competitive catches over the course of the match,” Heupel said. “I thought their tight end, in particular, made some competitive captures, created some explosive plays with a couple of our young boys in there at the start of the soccer game. So yeah, they got executed. Yeah, there are some things that we must do, of which we are capable. We must all learn from it and improve “.
“They didn’t perform anything we haven’t seen in the movies,” added Tennessee senior defender Theo Jackson. “We just didn’t perform when we needed it. I know they had guys out, we had guys out. But their guys came forward and got more plays than we did.”
The Tennessee secondary was called for five pass interference. At the start of junior corner Warren Burrell was in charge of four of them.
“This is about me,” Heupel said when asked about Tennessee’s final regulation possession which resulted in a 56-yard miss field goal from Chase McGrath that could have won the game.
Tennessee scored to equalize the game with 1:35 left and recovered the ball with a chance to win it after the defense forced a three and out. The Vols started the drive on the Purdue 40 with 44 seconds left and all three timeouts in their pockets, but chose two runs and two deep throws instead of plays with a greater chance of success.
“High coverage coverage from (Purdue),” Heupel said of the two run plays. “The box was light. I thought we had a chance to manage it and collect some stuff. We didn’t make the call and just when we were at the 41-yd-line, at the 42-yd-line, whatever was there, for a couple of plays there, to get us in a little better position on the field.
He forced McGrath to attempt a winning field goal which was as difficult as possible.
“Right on the edge there,” Heupel said. “(Special Teams Coordinator Mike Ekeler) believed it, but most importantly, Chase believed it too. He had the look in his eyes where he wanted the opportunity to go and drain him. It gave a hell of a ride. Disappointed that we weren’t able to get the ball any closer for him. “
Fake wounds from the opponent were once again a problem for the Vols attack. Heupel said that during the match, officials went to him and said “there must be a change of rules”.
“I thought it was quite comical that they came to tell me,” Heupel said. “They think there is a need for a change of rules.”
Cedric Tillman became the first Tennessee wide receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Justin Hunter did so in 2012. Tillman received a 41-yard touchdown and a 61-yard touchdown in the first quarter to do so.
Tillman ends the season with 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Heupel confirmed after the game that Small Jabari was banged all afternoon. Small still managed to run for 180 yards and a 26-course touchdown, but sometimes he needed Wright’s help.
“If you saw him in the night, he just played the course of things all night,” Heupel said. “That was kind of true for a couple of our guys, but definitely for Jabari.”
Statistics to know
– Tennessee dropped to 13-9 in all extra time. It was the first standout game since the BYU game of 2019. The Vols are now 0-2 against Purdue.
– With the defeat, Tennessee are now 29-25 in bowling matches. The 29 wins are the seventh among the FBS programs. UT is now 1-2 in the Music City Bowl and the only two overtime bowl matches the Vols have played in both have come at the Music City Bowl.
– Tennessee set a new record for points scored in a single season in the first quarter, surpassing the previous record of 484 in 1993. The Vols finished the season with 511 points scored.
– Tennessee also set a new touchdown record in a single season, surpassing the previous record of 63 touchdowns set in 2016. Tennessee finished the season with 67 touchdowns.
– The Vols beat their opponents 190-51 in the first quarter of this season. UT led the country in the first quarter scoring, averaging 14.08 points, more than two and a half points higher than the second team (Georgia – 11.46).
– Hendon Hooker has set two new program records in a single season this season in terms of passerby efficiency (182.04) and completion rate (68.2%). He also finished in the top-10 for a single season record in total offense: 3,562 yards (4th); passing yards: 2,945 (10 °); touchdown on pass: 31 (t-3 °); consecutive games with touchdown pass: 12 (t-3 °); and yard runs of the quarterback: 617 (3rd).
– Cedric Tillman’s 1,081 yards received this season was the fourth in the history of the program. Tillman received three touchdowns received at the Music City Bowl, a career record, finishing the season with 12 touchdowns received, putting him tied for second place in the history of the program with Cedrick Wilson (2000).
– With eight tackles for a loss on Thursday, Tennessee finished the 2021 season with a school record of 102 TFL.
– Chase McGrath hasn’t lost an extra point all season and has scored 136 in a row.
– Jeremy Banks finished with 20 tackles, the career record. He also set a career record with 2.5 tackles per loss.
– Byron Young had eight career tackles at most and 2.5 career tackles at most for defeat.
– Kamal Hadden recorded his first interception in his career.