Knoxville, Tenn. – For only the second time in the past 18 years, Tennessee basked in a win over Florida on Saturday, this one a 38-33 thriller that went all the way.
But as fans celebrated outside the media room at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker smiled and said nothing had changed for the Vols.
“We still have the same mission, and that is to get to Atlanta [for the SEC championship game]”, said Hooker, who passed for 349 yards and rushed for 112 yards. “We’re just going to stay the course, come in every day and keep improving.
The Vols (4-0) last qualified for the SEC Championship Game in 2007, and a big reason for that drought is that they just couldn’t beat Florida.
While Hooker did his best to play down the win, a sold-out checkerboard Neyland Stadium was still buzzing about 15 minutes after Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden intercepted Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson’s final shot to the end zone in the final seconds. Tennessee was leading 38-21 with 7:55 remaining when Jaylen Wright crossed the goal line on a 5-yard touchdown run.
But the Vols had to survive a few late touchdowns from the Gators (2-2), not to mention a kick recovery in the final seconds to sweat the win, something that had eluded them in just about every possible way. for many of the last decade and a half.
“I’m really excited for our players, just the growth they’ve shown, the ability to compete regardless of the score, regardless of what’s going on in the football game,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. . “They’re just resilient, fierce competitors, where we’ve grown since I’ve been here. I’m really proud of our players.”
Hooker, making his own claim for the Heisman Trophy, threw a touchdown pass in his 16th consecutive game. He also shook off several fierce punches to stay in the game and lead the Vols to what was by far the biggest victory of the Heupel era. Since taking over as starting quarterback in Week 3 a year ago, Hooker has totaled 45 touchdowns, completed 69% of his passes and thrown just two interceptions during that span.
“I told him after he broke a long run, ‘You’re special,’” Tennessee running back Jabari Small said. “I was impressed. I’m a fan right now, but Hendon is the same person every day. He stays in the game, always smiling and does everything off the pitch. So when you see him on the pitch, it’s is just translated. … He’s just a great player.”
And never was Hooker’s tenacity more apparent than in the second quarter, when he tugged his shoulder and stood up, grimacing. But he never flinched on the pitch.
“There are ups and downs and pain throughout a football game. It’s a physical game,” Hooker said. “To persevere through this is something I’m proud of, just to be a warrior and to compete for my brothers.”
Hooker said getting hit didn’t change the way he played the rest of the way. In fact, he led the Vols on a game-changing 12-play, 99-yard touchdown just before halftime.
“It’s part of the game,” Hooker said. “You’re gonna get hit hard. You’re gonna get punched. If you can go, you can go. If you can’t, you can’t.”
The Vols were without their top receiver, Cedric Tillman, with an ankle injury. Having an open date next week should help the Vols heal some of their wounds. They go to LSU on October 8, then Alabama arrives in Knoxville on October 15.
“There are a lot of things we can do better, but the goal for us is to find a way to win every Saturday we are on the pitch, to be the best team in football,” Heupel said. “We were able to do that tonight. Great game, man.”