Tennessee took its reputation as second half strugglers and shoved it down Vanderbilt's throat Saturday in Neyland Stadium.
Instead of starting strong and faltering down the stretch, the Vols maintained a steady diet of offensive success that peaked in the third quarter with 16 points and 202 yards to pummel the Commodores, 53-28, in their regular season finale.
By the end of the game, it was almost easier to tally up the players who weren't involved in the rout. Everyone from Josh Dobbs to backup senior kicker George Bullock put points on the scoreboard as Tennessee rolled to one of its most lopsided victory of the year to finish the regular season on a five-game win streak.
“This football team has been mentally ready to play for 12 games," Butch Jones said. "That is very difficult to do, and you do that with great leadership, great competitive character, and great character in your football program. We have that. We have something that we’re building very, very special here. As we all know, it takes time to build, but you’re starting to see it manifest within the confines of the Anderson Training Center. I’m proud of our players’ continuous improvement."
Tennessee piled up 523 total yards, 331 of them on the ground, and used yet another big splash special teams play to dispose of Vanderbilt after a streaky start. The Vols jumped out to a 10-0 lead after a 17-yard touchdown catch from Josh Dobbs to Von Pearson and a 26-yard Aaron Medley field goal. Vanderbilt was able to strike back with a 7-yard Darrius Simms touchdown to cut the deficit to three.
The two teams traded touchdowns, when a 6-yard Josh Dobbs rumble into the end zone was matched with 12-yard touchdown strike from Commodore quarterback Kyler Shurmur to Trent Sherfield. Medley banged home another field goal to extend Tennessee's lead to 20-14 with 12:57 to play, and that's when the Vols' special teams unit decided to make yet another impressive play that effectively broke the game open and ended any chance of Vanderbilt hanging in the game.
Cam Sutton took an 85-yard punt return to the house, pushing Tennessee's lead to 27-14 and and sparking an onslaught that effectively ended the game in the third quarter.
“You look at the special teams game, I believe that was our sixth special teams touchdown of the year," Jones said. "Zach Azzanni runs our punt return team, and those guys take great pride in their performance. What can I say about Cameron Sutton and the 10 other individuals that are blocking for him?"
Sutton's touchdown was followed by a Todd Kelly Jr. interception with Vanderbilt driving at the end of the half. The Vols then exploded out of the gate in the third quarter, sacking Shurmur in the end zone after being stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the one for the program's first safety since 2012 and taking the ensuing possession for a 5-yard touchdown from Dobbs to Pearson to open the floodgates. The junior ended the night 13-of-21 for 140 yards in the air and 93 on the ground.
Tennessee held Vanderbilt to just 16 yards in the third quarter and 5-of-14 on third down in the 25-point win. Jalen Hurd rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and Alvin Kamara ran for 99 on 16 attempts as the Vols rushed for their most yards on the season against the No. 4 rushing defense in the SEC coming into the game.
The Vols will now wait to see what bowl they'll be selected to play in next Saturday when the SEC announces its bowl matchups.
"They have worked so hard and have been through so much this year," Jones said. "For this senior class--we were in the huddle with about 11 minutes to go in the game when we were going out on offense--I told them to go enjoy these 11 minutes. Life goes fast. Time goes fast.