NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a game that spanned more than four and a half hours in front of the largest crowd in TransPerfect Music City Bowl history, Tennessee suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to Purdue Thursday evening at Nissan Stadium, 48-45.
Both teams combined for 29 points over the final 4:58 of game action, and the score was knotted 45-45 at the end of regulation. Tennessee (7-6) took the ball first and faced 4th-and-goal from one yard out, but the Vols were unable to score. Freshman running back Jaylen Wright appeared to have extended the ball into the end zone, but it was ruled that his forward progress had been stopped short of the goal line.
Tennessee’s defense held the Boilermakers (9-4) to just four yards on the ensuing possession before placekicker Mitchell Fineran knocked the game-winning field goal through the uprights from 39 yards out.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker led an explosive Volunteer offense that piled up 663 yards, shattering the all-time program bowl record for total offense. The UT signal caller threw for a career-high 378 yards and five touchdowns in Nashville, completing 26-of-41 passes with no interceptions. Adding 56 yards on the ground, Hooker set the Tennessee bowl record for individual total offense at 434.
Hooker finished his debut season on Rocky Top breaking UT single-season records for passing efficiency (182.01) and completion percentage (68.2) while tying for third in program history with 31 touchdowns on the season.
Redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman capped his impressive 2021 campaign with another fantastic outing, hauling in seven catches for 150 yards and a Music City Bowl record three receiving touchdowns. The Las Vegas native rounded out his season with 1,081 yards, becoming the eighth Vol to crack 1,000 receiving yards in a single season and the first since Justin Hunter in 2012.
Velus Jones Jr. ended his collegiate career with an electric performance for the Big Orange, totaling a game-high 225 all-purpose yards. The redshirt senior receiver reeled in a career-high 10 receptions for 85 yards and dashed 140 yards in the kick return game to spark the Vols on special teams.
Sophomore running back Jabari Small had a career day on the ground, leading all rushers Thursday with 26 carries for 180 yards and a touchdown. His 180 yards tied Travis Henry in the 2001 Cotton Bowl for the second-highest rushing output in a bowl game in program history.
Redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks was a menace on the defensive side of the ball, totaling a career-best 20 tackles, 2.5 TFLs and two pass breakups. His 20 tackles tied the Tennessee single-game bowl record and were the most by a Vol in any game since Daniel Bituli had 23 in the 2017 season opener vs. Georgia Tech.
After the Tennessee defense forced a turnover on downs on Purdue’s opening possession, the quick-strike Vols needed just 44 seconds to draw up a four-play, 56-yard scoring drive to take the initial lead. Hooker went deep over the middle to Tillman, who made a spectacular jumping grab at the goal line before landing squarely in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown. Senior placekicker Chase McGrath knocked home the PAT give the Vols a 7-0 lead with 10:28 remaining in the first quarter.
Tillman’s first-quarter TD helped him set a Tennessee single-season record, as he became the first player in program history to haul in a receiving touchdown in seven consecutive contests. The previous record of six was set by Joey Kent in 1995.
The Boilermakers immediately responded as quarterback Aidan O’Connell launched a touchdown pass to junior receiver Broc Thompson for 75 yards on the first play of the ensuing drive. Mitchell Fineran’s PAT went through to tie it up, 7-7, with 10:15 left in the opening stanza.
Tennessee regained its lead on another long bomb to Tillman, as Hooker found his top wideout down the right sideline and connected for a 61-yard score. McGrath knocked his school-record 62nd PAT of the season through the uprights to make it 14-7 Vols with 6:31 to go in the first quarter.
Purdue looked to even the score once again on its next possession, but redshirt sophomore Kamal Hadden denied the Boilermakers with his first career interception in the end zone painted Tennessee orange. The Vols proceeded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive punctuated by Small’s ninth rushing touchdown of the season from two yards out. McGrath remained true on the extra point and improved UT’s lead to 21-7 with 3:29 remaining in the first quarter.
Purdue tallied 16 unanswered points, all in the second quarter, to gain a 23-21 edge heading into the halftime locker room. Fineran connected on field goals from 24, 36 and 29 yards before the Boilermakers capitalized on a UT fumble and went ahead on tight end Payne Durham’s two-yard touchdown catch with 19 seconds left in the half.
Out of halftime, Tennessee orchestrated a seven-play, 71-yard scoring drive to go back on top. Small provided 24 rushing yards on the series while Hooker accounted for 37 yards of total offense, including a 15-yard scoring strike to Jones Jr. on a wide receiver screen to the left side. McGrath’s fourth PAT of the afternoon gave the Big Orange a 28-23 edge with 12:45 to play in the third quarter.
The back-and-forth affair continued as Purdue strung together a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. O’Connell connected on his third touchdown of the day, finding sophomore receiver T.J. Sheffield in the far right corner of the end zone to put the Boilermakers back ahead, 30-28.
After a pair of stagnant offensive drives, the Volunteers received a boost of vitality when defensive end Byron Young dropped back into coverage and nabbed his first career interception. UT promptly marched into Purdue territory to set up a 30-yard field goal try for McGrath, who sailed it through the uprights to put the Vols up by one, 31-30, with 3:44 left in the third quarter.
Tennessee claimed its second turnover in a row and third interception of the night on the ensuing Purdue series, as O’Connell faced pressure from the UT blitz package and lobbed a pass into the waiting arms of senior defensive back Trevon Flowers. The Vols were unable to capitalize, however, turning the ball over on downs at the Purdue 24-yard line with 12:03 remaining in the game.
Trailing 31-30, Purdue grabbed the lead once again as Durham broke numerous tackles, kept his feet churning and plodded into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown. O’Connell found his tight end again on the two-point conversion to advance the lead to 38-31 with 4:58 to go in the contest.
The Vols came fighting back on the next possession, as Small broke free for a career-long 60-yard rush and was downed in the red zone to set up Tillman’s third TD reception of the night. Hooker found the Las Vegas native on a 13-yard slant over the middle as Tillman became the first Vol with three receiving touchdowns in a single bowl game. McGrath’s fifth PAT tied it up, 38-38, with 3:37 left on the clock.
Purdue kept its composure and generated another long passing play from O’Connell with a 70-yard touchdown connection down the left sideline to Thompson to retake the lead, 45-38, with 2:57 left in regulation.
When the breaks went against Tennessee, the Vols put on more steam, using four plays to go 72 yards in 77 seconds of game action. The series was highlighted by redshirt senior tight end Princeton Fant’s career-long 58-yard reception and punctuated by Jalin Hyatt’s touchdown catch in the end zone. It was Hooker’s fifth touchdown pass of the night, breaking an overall Tennessee bowl game record and tying the most thrown in a Music City Bowl contest.
The Vols had one last chance to avoid extra periods, starting with the ball at their own 40-yard line with 44 seconds left in regulation. After the drive stalled at the Purdue 39, McGrath stepped up for a 56-yard try, his fifth career attempt from beyond 50 yards. The kick fell short and wide right as time expired to force overtime in Nashville.
Tennessee rounded out the first season of the Josh Heupel era with an 7-6 overall record and featured one of the most prolific offenses in Tennessee history. The 2021 squad finished the year setting programs records for points scored (511) and touchdowns (67) in a single season.