TAMPA — Not long after he was hired in December of 2012 as coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, Butch Jones found himself in Hendersonville, Tenn, sitting in what he called the man cave inside Jalen Hurd’s home, trying to woo the four-star running back to join Vol Nation.
Why Hurd was such an important recruit was evident Friday afternoon when the redshirt sophomore earned the game’s MVP honors after leading Tennessee to a 45-6 victory against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
Hurd rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown as Tennessee (9-4) finished the season on a six-game winning streak. It was the sixth time this season Hurd rushed for more than 100 yards and the ninth time during his career.
What’s more, he did it on a sore hamstring that left Hurd’s availability for the Vols a game-time decision.
“We thought he was doubtful,” Jones said.
“There was nothing that was going to stop me from playing,” Hurd said. “Even if it hurt I didn’t really care.”
There was also nothing that stopped Hurd from running the ball Friday, either. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound back carried 24 times. He reached at least the line of scrimmage on all 24 carries.
“He sacrificed,” Jones said.
While Hurd walked out of Raymond James Stadium with the MVP trophy, the real MVPs, according to Jones, was the Vols training staff that treated Hurd’s injury around the clock.
Hurd suffered the injury during Monday’s practice while running down field. The training staff immediately went to work on Hurd’s leg while Jones held his breath. By Thursday, Hurd could run straight ahead. By Friday, he was running through and around the Northwestern defense.
“We talked about ‘T-tough.’ He’s T-tough,” Jones said, with the “T” being Tennessee.
That Hurd signed with Jones was big for two reasons. One, he gives the Vols a running back who can dominate a game. Two, he is a reason for top recruits in the state of Tennessee to stay home.
“Jalen is very special to me,” Jones said. “He’s very dear to my heart. It started a pipeline of the great players staying at home in Tennessee, and I think it’s a great illustration that great players in this state need to stay at home in Tennessee.”
Of course, Hurd had help against Northwestern.
Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw for 166 yards and rushed for 48, scoring on runs of 14 and 18 yards.
The Volunteers defense recorded four interceptions and sacked Northwestern’s redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson four times.
“They are a very good team, they didn’t make mistakes,” Thorson said. “But we’ve seen teams like that (before). Their defensive line was pretty good and their back end was solid, but they didn’t make any mistakes and that was the difference in the game.”
Northwestern (10-3), which also entered the game on a five-game winning streak, was looking to win 11 games for the first time in the program’s history.
Instead, the Vols rolled to their ninth win of the season, their most since they won nine games in 2007.
“I’d look at our body of work — 10 wins with a rookie quarterback, I’ll take it,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We got a lot of room for improvement. We’ll get better. I believe that.”