Jimmy’s blog: Hooker fights back tears, then tears up Missouri’s defense

Jimmy’s blog: Hooker fights back tears, then tears up Missouri’s defense

By Jimmy Hyams

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker fought back tears as he experienced the Vol Walk for the last time, knowing he was about to play his last game at Neyland Stadium.

This is a guy that was tossed aside by Virginia Tech, a guy that didn’t get a plethora of offers when he entered the transfer a portal, a guy who didn’t win the starting job at Tennessee last August.

But here he was, the toast of Tennessee, about to embark on the last game at his new home.

He ran through the `T’ for the final time to a thunderous ovation, then had fans on their feet with a brilliant performance in leading the Vols to an are-you-kidding-me 66-24 victory over Missouri on a chilly Senior Day at Neyland Stadium.

A week after losing 27-13 at Georgia, Tennessee exploded behind Hooker, who put up Heisman Trophy like numbers. Hooker was 25 of 35 for 355 yards and three scores. He ran for 50 yards and another score.

He absolutely torched a team that led Georgia by 10 points in the fourth quarter and a defense that allowed just 26 points to the Dawgs.

“He’ll (go down) as one of the great ones here, no matter how it ends up,’’ Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said of Hooker. “His perseverance hasn’t gone unnoticed.’’

Tennessee had a precarious 28-24 led with 8:55 left in the third quarter, but then Hooker hit Jalin Hyatt on a well-designed 68-yard touchdown pass to open the flood gates. The Vols outscored Missouri 38-0 over the final 24 minutes to put the game away.

Heupel liked the sideline demeanor after Missouri closed the gap to four points.

“We didn’t panic,’’ he said. “We just settled into our game plan.’’

It’s remarkable what Tennessee has done to three of the top four defenses in the SEC.

Missouri had the No. 4 ranked defense in the SEC and UT scored 62 points and generated a school-record 724 yards.

Alabama had the No. 1 defense in the SEC and Tennessee got 52 points and 567 yards.

Kentucky had the No. 2 defense in the SEC and UT got 44 points and 422 yards.

That’s an average of 54 points and 575 yards against three of the top four defenses in the SEC, and 90% of the damage was done without star receiver Cedric Tillman, who has just one touchdown catch this season.

No one could have predicted that Tennessee would actually score more points this season against Missouri than it did last year in winning 62-24.

“On the field, we want to be explosive playmakers and win ballgames,’’ Hooker said.

Hyatt was among those playmakers. Despite dropping two passes, he caught seven passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. His 68-yard score was a thing of beauty.

“That’s been in my back pocket for a while,’’ Heupel said.

Hyatt described the play.

“I was hiding behind the left guard,’’ said Hyatt. “We were just trying to get them confused with the zone they went in. I saw the corner follow Bru (McCoy) so it was just an easy pitch and catch for us.’’

Hooker was confident the play would work.

“It’s successful every time we run it in practice,’’ Hooker said.  “I heard somebody on the sideline say, `Too easy.’’’

It was so easy and it gave the Vols some breathing room at 35-24.

Tennessee led by only four points midway through the third quarter in part because it couldn’t tackle Missouri quarterback Brady Cook, who had 86 rushing yards in the first half, including a 40-yard sprint that set up a field before halftime to cut UT’s lead to 28-17.

Tennessee did a much better job containing Cook in the second half as he rushed for only 20 yards.

“We didn’t make any adjustments,’’ Heupel said. “Just better execution.’’

Tillman’s absence was a mystery. Heupel said it had nothing to do with Tillman’s ankle, which he hurt against Akron. He said Tillman could’ve played but after warmups, they felt it was best if he didn’t.

The Vols certainly showed no ill affects from suffering their first loss of the season at Georgia last Saturday.  

They also impressed the College Football Playoff selection committee, which placed the Vols No. 5 in this week’s poll.

Tennessee (9-1) has now gone undefeated at home for the first time since 2007.

It has won five SEC games for just the second time in the past 14 years.

It hasn’t won six conference games in 15 years.

And it is relevant in the CFP conversation for the first time ever.

Not bad for a team that went 3-7 in 2020, lost over 40 players for a variety of reasons over a 12-month period and still hasn’t resolved an NCAA investigation which found 18 serious recruiting violations.

Hyatt was pleased with the way UT responded to the loss at Georgia.

“Our focus is on our goal,’’ he said, “and that’s to win the national championship.’’

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