Football vs. Vanderbilt

Tennessee Quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) tackled by Vanderbilt Linebacker Tommy Eckels during the Tennessee vs Vanderbilt football game on Nov. 27, 2021 in Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN.

Purdue edges out Tennessee 48-45 in overtime as controversial non-call led to Purdue’s game-winning field goal in the 2021 TransPerfect Music City Bowl.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jaylen Wright took the hand off from Hendon Hooker at the 1-yard line. It was fourth and goal in overtime, and a touchdown would have put Tennessee in the driver’s seat to win a bowl game in Josh Heupel’s first season.

Wright was hit at the line of scrimmage, but he gave an tremendous second effort and stretched out the ball as he fell. As close a finish as anyone could draw up.

The play was reviewed and the officials ruled that Wright’s forward progress had been stopped, and that – despite him lying on a Purdue defender and not the ground – he was down short of the end zone.

Purdue took the ball and drained the short field goal to escape with a 48-45 overtime win over Tennessee Thursday evening in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, the Vols’ first postseason loss since 2010.

“Yeah, they said the forward progress had been stopped,” Heupel said when asked if he got an explanation from the officials. “It sounded like the whistle blew after he extended the football, but you know.”

That last call was not the only controversial one of the night. Defensive back Warren Burrell was flagged on back-to-back plays for defensive pass interference, both of which were generous calls. Later on Tennessee’s final drive of regulation, the officials did not call defensive pass interference on Purdue on a play that was more suspicious than Burrell’s.

Tennessee cannot fully blame the loss on the controversial calls. The Vols truly had every chance to win the game.

"At the end of the day, you can't control what yellow hankies come out, when they do and when they don't," Heupel said. "There's some things I probably don't agree with – I think everyone knows that – but I think it's important for us as players and coaches to look at and things that we can control and how we could have been better and changed the outcome of the game."

Cedric Tillman crossed the 1,000 receiving yard mark for the year, only the ninth 1,000 yard receiver in program history and the first since Justin Hunter in 2012. He finished the game with 7 receptions for 150 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns, tied for the most receiving touchdowns in any Tennessee contest.

Hooker threw for 378 yards and 5 touchdowns, which were the most in the Music City Bowl’s history. With his 31 passing touchdowns for the season, Hooker tied Erik Ainge (2007) for third all-time in Tennessee’s single-season passing touchdown leaderboard.

Jabari Small even totaled 180 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries as the Vols passed Phillip Fulmer’s 1993 team to set a record for the most points ever scored in a single season (511).

The Vols had one unproductive offensive quarter and it proved costly in the end. They were outscored 16-0 in the second by Purdue and totaled 70 yards of offense to Purdue’s 163. The Vols combined for 569 yards in the other three quarters.

The Vols did not do anything drastically different in that quarter, it was as simple as a lack of execution with fundamentals.

“I didn’t feel like in the second quarter we executed some simple things very well,” Heupel said. “We got a couple of things, got a chance on explosive plays but don’t execute them. We got some simple things in first down situations that we don’t execute. We’re not taking anything away from Purdue, but we were not very good in that quarter.”

Tennessee’s defense was as inconsistent as its offense was. They picked off Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell three times, but also let him throw for 534 yards and 5 touchdowns. Purdue hardly looked like it was playing without its two best receivers David Bell and Milton Wright – both of whom opted-out of the game.

Junior receiver Broc Thompson amassed 217 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns on his way to being named the game’s MVP, and tight end Payne Durham added a pair of receiving touchdowns as well.

The Vols were playing with a depleted secondary – defensive back Alontae Taylor had opted-out of the game and both Kenneth George Jr. and Brandon Turnage were inactive. In the end, Purdue’s thin position group was better than Tennessee’s.

And on a night that was almost decided by a single play in overtime, Tennessee’s mistakes – however insignificant they seemed at the time – loomed larger than ever.

“They didn’t run anything that we hadn’t seen on film, we just didn’t execute when we needed to,” defensive back Theo Jackson said. “I know that they had guys out, we had guys out, but their guys stepped up and made more plays than we did.”

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