KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee will head into its bowl game with the type of momentum it hasn't enjoyed in several years.
Joshua Dobbs threw two touchdown passes to Von Pearson and ran for a third score Saturday as Tennessee trounced Vanderbilt 53-28 to end the regular season with its first five-game winning streak since 2007. This also marks the first time Tennessee (8-4, 5-3 SEC) has won at least eight games in a season since the 2007 team finished 10-4.
"I believe we're one of the best teams in the country, and our players believe that," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "There's a lot of positive energy surrounding our program."
Tennessee's Jalen Hurd rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown, and Cameron Sutton scored on an 85-yard punt return. Vanderbilt stayed close for most of the first half before Tennessee reeled off 33 straight points, turning a 20-14 game into a 53-14 runaway.
"We were our own worst enemy tonight," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "I thought we hadn't done anything any different just in terms of game plan and execution. We looked at these guys. We knew who they were, and they weren't any different than what we thought. We just needed to tackle better, we needed to get off the field on third down and just do a better job overall of just playing the game."
Tennessee beat Vanderbilt for a second straight year after losing to its in-state rival in 2012 and 2013. Tennessee has won 31 of its last 34 meetings with Vanderbilt overall.
The Volunteers put up their highest point total against a Southeastern Conference opponent since a 59-21 victory over Mississippi State in 2003 to continue their remarkable turnaround from a 3-4 start.
"There's no quit in us," Sutton said. "Our hunger grows week in and week out. Adversity's going to hit a team, and it hit us early, but we put it upon the leaders of the team to step up, embrace it and make a change. We did that and came together."
Tennessee trounced Vanderbilt with a well-rounded attack. Tennessee rushed for 331 yards, the defense produced a safety when Derek Barnett sacked Shurmur in the end zone and Aaron Medley kicked three field goals. Alvin Kamara rushed for 99 yards, and Dobbs ran for 93 yards while throwing for 140 yards.
Sutton arguably delivered the biggest play of all.
Vanderbilt was only trailing 20-14 late in the second quarter before Sutton's punt return helped Tennessee seize control of the game. Sutton stumbled initially, but he regained his footing and headed toward the right sideline before sprinting into the end zone.
This marked the second straight year Sutton has scored on a punt return against Vanderbilt, as he had a 76-yarder to open the scoring last season in Tennessee's 24-17 victory. Sutton, who scored on an 84-yard return against Kentucky last month, is the first Tennessee player to score two touchdowns on punt returns in one season since Terry Fair in 1996. Sutton has 467 yards in punt returns this season, breaking Bobby Majors' 46-year-old school record.
"It's a blessing," Sutton said. "It's amazing."
Tennessee has scored on a total of six returns this season. Evan Berry has three touchdowns on kickoff returns and Kamara scored one touchdown on a punt return.
According to STATS LLC, Tennessee has the most combined touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns in one season by any Football Bowl Subdivision program since North Carolina had seven in 2013. North Carolina scored on five punt returns and two kickoff returns that season.
Sutton's touchdown turned the momentum in Tennessee's favor for good after Vanderbilt hung around for the first 25 minutes.
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