'Resilient' Tennessee Volunteers relish second win over Florida in 18 years

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For only the second time in the past 18 years, Tennessee was basking in a win over Florida on Saturday, this one a 38-33 thriller that went right down to the end.

But as the fans celebrated outside the media room at Neyland Stadium, a composed Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker smiled and said nothing had changed for the Vols.

"We still have the same mission, and that's getting to Atlanta [for the SEC championship game]," said Hooker, who passed for 349 yards and rushed for 112 yards. "We're just going to stay the course, come in every day and keep getting better."

The Vols (4-0) last advanced to the SEC championship game in 2007, and a big reason for that drought is they simply haven't been able to beat Florida.

While Hooker did his best to downplay the win, a sold-out, checkerboarded Neyland Stadium was still buzzing some 15 minutes after Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden intercepted Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson's final heave toward the end zone in the waning seconds. Tennessee led 38-21 with 7:55 to play when Jaylen Wright burst across the goal line on a 5-yard touchdown run.

But the Vols had to survive a couple of late touchdowns by the Gators (2-2), not to mention a recovered onside kick in the final seconds to sweat out the win, something that had eluded them in just about every way possible for much of the past decade and a half.

"I'm really excited for our players, just the growth they've shown, the ability to compete no matter what the score was, no matter what was going on in the football game," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "They're just resilient and fierce competitors, where we've grown in the time that I've been here. I'm really proud of our players."

Hooker, making his own Heisman Trophy statement, threw a touchdown pass in his 16th straight game. He also shook off several fierce hits to stay in the game and lead the Vols to what was easily the biggest win of the Heupel era. Since taking over the starting quarterback job in Week 3 a year ago, Hooker has accounted for 45 touchdowns, completed 69% of his passes and thrown just two interceptions in that span.

"I told him after he busted a long run, 'You're special,'" Tennessee running back Jabari Small said. "I was in awe. I'm a fan right now, but Hendon is the same person every day. He stays in the game, always smiling and does everything right off the field. So when you see it on the field, it just translates. ... He's just a great player."

And never was Hooker's toughness more on display than in the second quarter, when he took a shot to his shoulder area and got up wincing. But he never flinched on the field.

"There are ups and downs and aches and pains throughout a football game. It's a physical game," Hooker said. "Persevering through that is something I pride myself on, just being a warrior and competing for my brothers."

Hooker said being banged up didn't change the way he played the rest of the way. In fact, he led the Vols on a 12-play, 99-yard touchdown drive right before the half that changed the complexion of the game.

"It's part of the game," Hooker said. "You're going to get hit hard. You're going to get banged up. If you can go, you can go. If you can't, you can't."

The Vols were playing without their best receiver, Cedric Tillman, who was out with an ankle injury. Having an open date next week should help the Vols heal some of their injuries. They travel to LSU on Oct. 8 and then Alabama comes to Knoxville on Oct. 15.

"There's a lot we can do better, but the goal for us is to find a way to win each Saturday we're on the field, to be the best football team," Heupel said. "We were able to do that tonight. Great game, man."