South Alabama Tennessee Football

Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Alabama Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — All season, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has stressed maintaining a high competitive level, no matter the opponent.

Saturday night, thanks to a 60-14 win over South Alabama, Heupel's players proved they got the message.

“They answered my question,” Heupel said. “Who are we going to be? We were assignment sound. We took care of business.”

Hendon Hooker threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another to lead Tennessee.

The nonconference win gives the Volunteers (6-5) bowl eligibility in Heupel's first season. The Jaguars (5-6) have one more try to reach that level under first-year coach Kane Wommack.

“(Bowl eligibility) is important for sure,” Heupel said. “Nobody focused on that part of it. We just wanted to continue to grow and compete. Now we have an opportunity to grow and compete in December.”

Hooker connected on 17 of 20 passes, with touchdowns going to Cedric Tillman (27 yards) and Princeton Fant (24). Jabari Small rushed for 73 yards and a pair of TDs. Jalen Wright and Len'Neth Whitehead also scored one on the ground.

“(We were) hitting on every angle,” Hooker said. “We're trying to tire you out tonight.”

“(Hooker) keeps being aggressive," Heupel said. “He's a competitor.”

Besides an offense that collected 561 yards, the Vols defense stifled the Jaguars with 1 of 16 in third-down conversions and had 13 tackles for loss.

“We did a good job of maxing things out (on defense),” Heupel said. “We had pressure on their quarterback.”

“I don’t think we played particularly well tonight," said Wommack. "Defensively, when we get behind on someone, we play too hesitant. You got to cut it loose against guys like this. They're athletic, they’re faster than us, they go very very fast and challenge you, they make tackles in space, and right now we don’t have enough guys that can make tackles in space.”

THE TAKEAWAY

South Alabama: Injuries piled up on the Jaguars and became too much for them to overcome – especially against an SEC opponent.

Tennessee: All season, Heupel has stressed the importance of maintaining a high competitive level, no matter the opponent. Tennessee got closer to reaching that with its win over the Jaguars.

ODDS & ENDS

Hooker’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Cedric Tillmon was his 10th-straight game with a TD pass ... This game had two safeties. Desmond Trotter was tackled in the end zone, the other when the ball was snapped out of the end zone on a punt ... It was Tennessee’s latest nonconference game played since Dec. 4, 1971, when the Vols beat No. 5 Penn State in Knoxville.

UP NEXT

South Alabama: The Jaguars have a Friday afternoon battle at home with Coastal Carolina, a game they must win to be bowl eligible.

Tennessee: Heupel will get his introduction to the in-state rivalry with Vanderbilt on Saturday.

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