Iamaleava, Pearce lead Vols to Citrus Bowl rout of Iowa

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava had three rushing touchdowns in his first career start to lead the Volunteers to an easy Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava had three rushing touchdowns in his first career start to lead the Volunteers to an easy Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nico Iamaleava had more rushing touchdowns Monday afternoon than Iowa had points.

More passing touchdowns, too.

Tennessee's freshman quarterback scored from 19, 3 and 2 yards out in his first career start as the No. 25 Volunteers smothered the No. 20 Hawkeyes 35-0 at the Citrus Bowl before a crowd of 43,861 inside Camping World Stadium. The Vols wrapped up a 9-4 record in coach Josh Heupel's third season and now have 20 wins the past two years, the best such stretch for Tennessee since the 2003-04 seasons.

"The finish to the 2023 season is the kickoff to 2024, and I think this speaks to the culture that we have inside of our building and our locker room," Heupel said. "It speaks to the kind of competitors we have. You look at all the young guys we had today who got so many meaningful snaps, and I think it speaks to the future being extremely bright.

"There are a lot of things we'll need to reset and grow from, and every season starts over, but this is a group I love being around."

Iamaleava's third rushing score occurred after edge rusher James Pearce Jr. stripped Hawkeyes quarterback Deacon Hill, resulting in a fumble that defensive lineman Dominic Bailey recovered at the Iowa 2 with 2:25 remaining in the third quarter. Pearce would add a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown 45 seconds into the fourth quarter to make it 28-0.

Tennessee has prevailed six consecutive times in Florida bowls, winning the Outback over Wisconsin after the 2007 season, the Gator over Iowa after the 2014 season, the Outback over Northwestern after the 2015 season, the Gator over Indiana after the 2019 season, the Orange over Clemson last season and now the Citrus.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have been outscored 80-28 in their last two meetings against the Vols, having lost the Gator Bowl after the 2014 season 45-28. Iowa won this year's Big Ten West Division title and finished 10-4.

"This was a disappointing end to a really special season and a really special group of people," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Tennessee played an outstanding game. We did some self-inflicted things, but they are really well-coached, and their offense presents some unique challenges."

Iamaleava earned MVP honors after completing 12 of 19 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, which came from 18 yards out to tight end McCallan Castles with 4:48 remaining. Sophomore running back Dylan Sampson made the most of his first start as well, pounding out 133 yards on 20 carries, with freshman backup Cameron Seldon adding 55 on 13 rushes.

Neither Sampson nor Seldon had a lost-yardage carry against the nation's fifth-ranked defense.

The Vols played without three notable players — quarterback Joe Milton III and running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small — who opted out of the game to focus on their NFL fortunes. That was on top of 10 departures through the NCAA transfer portal.

"It felt good to finally play a whole game," Iamaleava said. "I have not done that in a while. It felt good to get back out there and get my feet wet.

"I'm proud of the guys and how they played, and I still think there is a lot of room for us to get better."

Tennessee opened the game by forcing a quick three-and-out with a third-down sack by linebacker Elijah Herring, but an initial first down by the Vols on their opening possession was then followed by consecutive holding and false-start penalties. A 21-yard Jackson Ross punt allowed Iowa to start its second possession at the Tennessee 47, and the Hawkeyes drove to the 4 before Andre Turrentine intercepted Hill in the end zone on a third-and-goal attempt.

"It's crazy, because before curfew last night we were talking about the game, and Dre called it," Vols senior safety Jaylen McCollough said. "He said he was going to catch an interception. Seeing how Dre has grown up and approached everything, I'm really proud of him."

Said Heupel: "That was a great play by Dre, and that was great to see him go perform the way that he did. That was a huge play. It changed the dynamics of the game early."

The first quarter ended with the Vols driving 54 yards in six plays to Iowa's 19-yard line, and the second quarter began with Iamaleava keeping up the middle for the 19-yard score.

Iamaleava reached the end zone from 3 yards out with 8:12 before halftime to extend Tennessee's lead to 14-0, with the second touchdown drive by the Vols covering 68 yards on 11 plays. Tennessee had 178 yards of total offense at that point of the game, compared to just 38 by the Hawkeyes.

Tennessee finished with a 383-173 advantage in total yardage, and the successful youth movement by the Vols at Iowa's expense should lead to plenty of offeseason optimism.

"Nico's that guy," Vols defensive end Tyre West said. "We're going to the natty. Knowing him, we're going to the natty."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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