Hooker sparks No. 11 Tennessee over No. 20 Florida, 38-33

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Hendon Hooker threw for 348 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 112 yards and a score to lead No. 11 Tennessee to a 38-33 victory over No. 20 Florida Saturday.

It was Tennessee’s second win over Florida in the last 18 meetings and snapped a six-game losing streak in the series. The win gave the Volunteers their first 4-0 start since 2016.

Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) took control in the fourth quarter when it traveled 87 yards for a TD after a fumble by Gators (2-2, 0-2) quarterback Anthony Richardson.

Richardson had a career-high 453 passing yards and two touchdowns and ran for 62 and two scores in a raucous Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee led 17-14 at halftime following a first half loaded with big offensive plays on both sides.

Hooker, who shook off what was reported as an upper body injury, threw for 248 yards, including a 70-yard connection with Bru McCoy for the Vols’ longest play from scrimmage this season.

A 99-yard drive that ended with a one-yard pass from Hooker to McCoy, gave Tennessee the lead 7 seconds before the break.

Richardson had a career-high 220 passing yards by intermission and connected with his first TD pass of the season. Keon Zipperer broke three arm tackles on his way to a 44-yard score.

MISSING (OR NOT) IN ACTION

The left leg injury that forced Tennessee WR Cedric Tillman to miss a good deal of the Akron game caused him to be held out. … Vols WR Jimmy Calloway couldn’t play in the first half against the Gators because of a team suspension after being ejected last week for punching an Akron player. … Florida OT Michael Tarquin (lower leg injury) and long snapper Marco Ortiz did not play. …. LB Ventrell Miller, who missed last week’s game with a right foot injury, started.

FACTS & FIGURES

Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker had a string of 14 consecutive pass completions, including 12 against Akron, before a misfire. … In back-to-back second-quarter plays, Richardson threw his first TD pass of the season, for 44 yards to Keon Zipperer, before Hooker’s 70-yarder to McCoy. … Midway through the second quarter Richardson had thrown for 207 yards, a career high. … Florida had just three sacks in its first three games. It had three Saturday. … RB Jabari Small‘s 16-yard TD reception was his first. … Florida was four of five in fourth-down conversions.

THE TAKEAWAY

Florida: In order to have success in the remainder of their SEC games, the Gators will need to add a dimension to their offensive attack. Once defenses focus on containing Richardson in the pocket, the variables in the offense are limited. Richardson was able to avoid the pressure and has been sacked just twice this season.

Tennessee: Getting WR Cedric Tillman (leg) healthy is imperative if the Vols plan on competing against the elite in the SEC. Having that weapon available is key to giving LSU, Alabama and Kentucky something to game-plan against.

UP NEXT

Florida: After playing three ranked teams in the first four weeks of the season, the Gators get a break by hosting Eastern Washington Saturday.

Tennessee: An open date Saturday gives the Vols an opportunity to catch their breath before going to LSU and then hosting No. 2 Alabama.

Hooker, defense lead No. 24 Tennessee past No. 17 Pitt in OT

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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PITTSBURGH – Tennessee coach Josh Heupel isn’t sure his team would have found a way a year ago to win a game where it fumbled twice and allowed a blocked punt. All in the second half. On the road. Against a program coming off a Power Five conference title.

It’s not last season. The 24th-ranked Volunteers may be maturing in front of their coach’s eyes. The latest proof came in a draining 34-27 overtime victory over No. 17 Pitt on Saturday, a four-hour physical and emotional marathon that ended with Tennessee spilling onto the field in a mixture of joy and relief.

“There’s a certain level of maturity that we certainly didn’t have last year at times,” said Heupel, who is in his second season of trying to restore the Volunteers to relevancy in the SEC. “Our kids are willing to continue to compete. They handled the flows, the ups and downs of the game the right way.”

There were plenty of each to go around. The Volunteers (2-0) allowed a game-tying touchdown pass from Pitt backup quarterback Nick Patti with 2:23 to go but regrouped to win it on a 28-yard lob from Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman on Tennessee’s first possession of the extra period.

The Volunteers’ defense, which had been relentless over the final three-plus quarters following a slow start, did the rest. It used a third-down sack and the one last of a seemingly unending streak of quarterback pressures to force Patti to throw incomplete on fourth down to end it.

“The second, third and fourth quarter, that’s as good a performance as I’ve been around in a long time,” Heupel said of a defense that struggled against quality competition in 2021. “They got put in a lot of bad positions. … I thought the overall effort from them was special.”

The defense needed to be on a night when the offense, which has become the program’s calling card, spent much of the second half running in place.

While Hooker finished with 325 yards passing and two touchdowns and Tillman caught nine passes for 162 yards, Tennessee couldn’t put the Panthers away even with Pitt severely limited.

The Panthers (1-1) lost starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to an undisclosed injury at the end of the first half and Patti spent the final quarter-plus effectively on one leg after twisting his knee while getting sacked.

The Volunteers allowed a blocked punt, saw a fumble cut short a drive and gave Pitt life late when Tre Flowers muffed a punt with 7:28 to go. The Panthers slowly moved the ball deep into Tennessee territory before a backpedaling Patti found Jared Wayne for a 4-yard score on fourth-and-goal to tie it at 27 with 2:23 to play.

Pitt finally ran out of chances in overtime. Patti – who finished 9 of 20 for 79 yards – drove the Panthers inside the 10 but Tennessee’s fourth sack forced Patti into a “heave and pray” and when his final pass fell to the turf, the Volunteers had found a way to win the type of game they’d grown accustomed to losing in recent years.

“(The defense) played amazing, you know, especially in the second half,” Tillman said. “You know, we’re not in his game if they don’t make the plays that they did.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The Panthers missed a pair of field goals and saw a red-zone possession in the first quarter end with an interception instead.

“I told our guys, it’s a game of inches, and there were inches all over the place that we needed to get,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi declined to give specifics on the nature of Slovis’ injury, saying only that he was hurt while getting sacked late in the first half that turned into a fumble – allowing Tennessee to take a 24-17 lead into the break.

Slovis, who finished 14 of 24 for 195 yards with a touchdown and a pick, felt “good” after the game according to Narduzzi.

Israel Abanikanda ran for 154 yards and a touchdown for Pitt.

THE TAKEAWAY

Tennessee: The Volunteers are eyeing a big step forward this fall. Whether they take it will rely heavily on a defense that struggled against quality opponents in 2021. So far, so good.

Pitt: The offense entered the season with plenty of question marks following Kenny Pickett‘s graduation. The offensive line was not supposed to be one of them. There were times Saturday when there were multiple white jerseys in the Panther backfield almost immediately after the snap.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Panthers could potentially fall out of the poll for the first time since Halloween after letting an early 11-point lead get away. The Volunteers should vault into the Top 20 for the first time since October 2016 when the poll is released Sunday.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: Hosts Akron next Saturday, with a visit from Florida looming on Sept. 24.

Pitt: Travels to Western Michigan next Saturday hoping to avenge a stunning home loss to the Broncos last fall.

Hooker leads Tennessee over Ball State, 59-10

Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn.  Hendon Hooker threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more scores to lead Tennessee to a 59-10 season-opening victory over Ball State Thursday night.

Hooker, in his second year as the Volunteers’ starter after transferring from Virginia Tech, had 211 yards passing by halftime along with a 38-0 lead. Eight different receiver caught passes in the first 30 minutes. He was replaced by Joe Milton midway through the third quarter.

“(Hooker) was really efficient,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel. “He was in command; in control. He was in complete command of the football game.”

Jaylen Wright led the Tennessee ground game with 86 yards and a touchdown.

“Tennessee is good at what they do from an offensive standpoint,” said Ball State coach Mike Neu. “It’s tough to slow down an offense like that with a quarterback playing at a high level.”

“We have more guys who understand the `why’ behind (what’s being done),” said Heupel, comparing his second season to last year. “We’re a deeper team than a year ago.

“We know more about this football team than a year ago. Roles are going to change throughout the season.”

The Cardinals’ bruising running back Carson Steele was limited to 27 yards on 11 carries.

“(We were) disruptive up front,” Heupel said of his defense’s success against Steele. “We controlled the edges. We didn’t let him get vertical in their run game.”

Making his first career start at quarterback for Ball State, redshirt junior John Paddock threw for 269 yards and a TD. His first pass, on the game’s first play, was intercepted by Tamarion McDonald. Tennessee scored its first TD on the next snap.

“Credit John Paddock for battling back, especially after that punch to the gut to start the game,” said Neu. “Really proud of him for battling back.”

The Vol defense came up with three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble.

NUMBERS GAME

Hooker extended his streak of games with having thrown a touchdown pass to 13, tied with Tony Robinson (1984-85) for second all-time in Vols’ history behind Heath Shuler’s 18 (1992-94)… Hooker’s two TD passes gave him 33 in his two-year career at Tennessee, 10th on the all-time list… Vols receiver Cedric Tillman had his streak of seven consecutive games with a touchdown reception come to an end. Tillman is Tennessee’s all-time leader… Tennessee has scored 45 or more points in its last four games, tying a school record set in the last four games of the 1993 season.

THE TAKEAWAY

Ball State: The best thing to come out of Thursday night’s game in renovated Neyland Stadium was the $1.5 million game check that will help the athletic department. The Cardinals, picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division can set their sights on improvement after the lopsided loss.

Tennessee: With the embarrassing 2019 season-opening loss to heavy underdog Georgia State still fresh in the minds of Volunteer fans, they were able to exhale when Tennessee, under second-year head coach Josh Heupel, showed it was focused and prepared. The Vols made positive strides that they will be able to take into next week’s trip to play No. 17 Pittsburgh.

UP NEXT

Ball State: The Cardinals will jump into the MAC season next Saturday when they entertain rival Western Michigan.

Tennessee: The Vols will head to Pitt Sept. 10 with revenge on their minds. Last year, Tennessee gave up 27 points in the second quarter and lost a 41-34 decision to the Panthers.