Tennessee at Alabama- Hooker

TUSCALOOSA, AL - October 23, 2021 - Quarterback Hendon Hooker #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, AL. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Senior kicker Chase McGrath watched as his 56-yard field goal attempt to win the Music City Bowl came up about five yards short and to the right, keeping the game tied at 45-all.

Overtime followed, as did one of the most controversial endings to a football game this season. When Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright’s forward progress was ruled a yard short of the end zone on fourth down, all Purdue kicker Mitchell Fineran had to do was drill a 38-yard field goal to solidify Purdue’s first 9-win season since 2003.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel walked from the field shaking his head. The Vols fell to 7-6 following Thursday night’s 48-45 loss in Nashville.

Here are three takeaways from Tennessee’s performance at the Music City Bowl

Overtime wrought with controversy

The ancient adage has been relied on time and time again.

‘There is never one play that decides a football game.’

For Tennessee fans, that quote is subjective for the time being. It certainly seemed as if Wright’s forward progress had not been stopped short of the goal line, a call that kept Tennessee scoreless on the front-end drive of the first overtime.

In the moment, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker thought the Vols were about to take a 6-point lead.

“Initially I was excited. I though we scored,” Hooker said. “That was a tough call, felt like me and my teammates gave our all.”

Tennessee has seen its share of controversy this season. The Vols’ bout with Ole Miss earlier in the year saw Tennessee fall just short as disgruntled fans littered the field in protest of a spot that turned the ball over on downs.

A second quarter to forget

Tennessee has played at a level entirely separate from the rest of the NCAA this season in the first quarter.

The Vols entered Thursday’s contest having scored 169 points in the first 15 minutes of the game, a good chunk ahead of second place Georgia at 149 on the year.

It was much of the same against the Boilermakers to start. Tennessee jumped out to a quick 21-7 lead behind two touchdown passes to Tillman and a 2-yard touchdown rush by sophomore running back Jabari Small.

Three out of Tennessee’s four first quarter drives found the end zone, accruing just four minutes and 33 seconds of game time in the process.

The second quarter was a different animal entirely. The Vols’ offense stalled, turning the ball over twice and allowing the Boilermakers 16 straight points and a 23-21 halftime lead.

“The second quarter was completely out of the ordinary,” Heupel said. “There were some simple things we just didn’t execute. Not taking away from Purdue, but we were not very good in that quarter.”

In the end, it was this second quarter which proved detrimental to the Vols’ bid at eight wins in Heupel’s first season as head coach.

Tillman, Hooker reach historic marks

Redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman made history on Tennessee’s first offensive possession of the day, hauling in a 41-yard touchdown pass from Hooker to give the Vols a 7-0 lead early.

The score marked seven straight games with a touchdown for Tillman, a feat last accomplished in 1995 by Joey Kent.

Tennessee’s second touchdown of the day was also a long bomb to Tillman, who streaked into the endzone having made even more record books. Tillman became the eighth Vol in program history to reach 1,000 receiving yards across a single season – the first since Justin Hunter recorded 1,083 receiving yards in 2012.

Tillman finished the season with 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. The star receiver also had five or more catches in eight straight games to end the year.

Hooker gained a little glory on his end of the opening scoring play as well, becoming the first Tennessee quarterback in since Heath Shuler in 1993 to throw for a touchdown pass in 12 consecutive games.

Hooker has also gotten it done on the ground this season. The dual-threat quarterback finished the season with 617 rushing yards, second behind on Josh Dobbs all-time in the Orange and White.

Hooker’s response to how he played against the Boilermakers was simple.

“I’d say average.” Hooker said.

The Virginia Tech transfer was confident though. After announcing his intent to return to Tennessee alongside Tillman, his focus was always on finishing strong in 2022.

“As soon as we get back, first day of workouts, I know me and (Tillman) are planning to stay up, get some of those young guys out there and play hard for those guys and the coaching staff and university as well,” Hooker said.

“…I see this as motivation going into next year.”

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