Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Football on X)
By Tucker Harlin
ORLANDO, Fla- No. 21 Tennessee (9-4, 4-4) felt the cheesiest as it defeated No. 17 Iowa (10-4, 7-2) 35-0 in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl in Camping World Stadium Monday.
It was the picture-perfect start to quarterback Nico Iamaleava’s career in Knoxville, but it also featured tremendous efforts from the Vols defense.
The defense set a tone early as linebacker Elijah Herring recorded the first of five Vols sacks on the afternoon on third down.
The Hawkeyes were given a great chance to score early as Vols punter Jackson Ross shanked a punt, giving them the ball on the other side of the 50-yard line.
The Hawkeyes got within the Vols 5-yard line, but quarterback Deacon Hill was intercepted by Andre Turrentine on third-and-goal.
“Great play by Andre,” Heupel said. “Great to see him perform the way that he did. That was a huge play that changed the dynamics of the game early on.”
Points would not be scored until the first play of the second quarter.
A few potent runs from Dylan Sampson took the Vols into the red zone. Iamaleava did the rest with a 19-yard scamper, putting the Vols ahead by a touchdown.
After forcing another punt, the Vols cashed in on another score. The Vols used heavy doses of running back Cam Seldon and were aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that put them in the red zone.
Iamaleava ran the score in from three yards out to stretch the lead. With the score, Iamaleava became the first Vols quarterback to run for two touchdowns in his first start.
“We knew we had a job to do. There was no nervousness or anything going into the game,” Iamaleava said about his first start. “I feel like we were just really prepared.”
The end of the second quarter and much of the third quarter was a punter battle. Ross ultimately won the battle when he pinned the Hawkeyes inside their 4-yard line.
Tennessee defensive end James Pearce strip-sacked Hill and gave the Vols a first-and-goal. Iamaleava punched in the touchdown as he extended across the plane to bump the lead to three scores.
“It’s always a lot of fun to get to the quarterback,” Pearce said “He’s back there with a job to do, I’ve got to beat the man up front.”
But Pearce did not stop with the strip-sack. When the Hawkeyes approached midfield on their ensuing possession, Pearce ran back an interception for a 52-yard touchdown to make it a 28-point contest and prompt a quarterback change for the Hawkeyes.
“James did a great job understanding the formation, where the bodies were, what type of release he’s getting, the ability to take his eyes and undercut the route, and he was athletic enough to go make the play.” Heupel said. “He’s on the jugs a couple times a week just to make sure he’s ready for that opportunity.”
After a long Hawkeyes possession, the Vols had one more score in them.
Sampson got the drive started with a 31-yard run, and Iamaleava capped it with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end McCallan Castles to ice the game for the Vols.
“That’s a great football team we played today,” said Vols head coach Josh Heupel. “They’ve had a tremendous amount of success this season. It was a great way to finish the 2023 season and kick off the 2024 season.”