Vanderbilt (2-9, 1-7) lost its sixth game in a row. But this time the Commodores refused to go quietly, and even mounted a hair-raising fourth-quarter comeback that kept the latest chapter in the storied rivalry between the state's two Southeastern Conference foes interesting.
Before a majority-orange-wearing crowd of 37,017, Vanderbilt cut Tennessee's lead to 17-10 with 2:33 to play behind backup quarterback Jared Funk. But the Commodores couldn't recover the ensuing onside kick, and the Volunteers tacked on a late touchdown on a critical fourth-and-2 play to put the game out of reach.
Nevertheless, it was the closest the Commodores had come to sniffing victory since the Oct. 9 rout of Eastern Michigan.
"I think with a big rivalry coming to town we were a lot more motivated this week," said defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone. "We prepared the way we should've, and it paid off a little more this week."
“It was a game I thought we could win, and we had our chances but didn't capitalize, and that's where we ended up,” said Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell. "I know it's been a long dry spell for Vanderbilt and its fans."
Funk, a senior who had previously played only in mop-up time, suddenly found himself playing in the fourth quarter in a game that was still on the line. In the final seven minutes of the game, he completed 9-of-14 passes for 146 yards, one touchdown and one near-touchdown-- totals that easily out-measured starter Larry Smith's.
Funk's performance presumably made a case for more playing time in next week's finale against Wake Forest. In the last three games, Funk has thrown a late-game touchdown pass to freshman receiver Jordan Matthews. Smith, the starter in all 11 games, has not thrown a touchdown pass in the last seven.
Tennessee played a mistake-filled game but survived on the arm of Bray, who threw a pair of impressive first-half touchdown passes, and tailback Tauren Poole, who rushed for 99 yards. Vanderbilt's defense buckled down in the second half, forcing turnovers and keeping the Vols out of the end zone until the final two minutes of the game-- but in the end, it was a case of too many squandered opportunities.
Showing great poise in the pocket, Bray threw two first-half touchdown passes, one to Justin Hunter and one to Denarius Moore, to put the Volunteers on top 14-0. Just when it seemed Tennessee might be ready to put the game away, Casey Hayward reversed the momentum by picking off a Bray pass at the Vanderbilt 5. The Commodores mounted a long, time-consuming drive that ended with a Ryan Fowler field goal, making the halftime score 14-3.
Vanderbilt came up empty on a pair of golden opportunities in the third quarter. The Commodores recovered a fumbled punt at the Tennessee 20, but Ryan Fowler missed a chip-shot field goal. Two plays later Kenneth Ladler picked off a Bray pass at the Commodore 47, giving Vandy another short field, but this time the Vols blocked Fowler's field goal attempt.
Daniel Lincoln added a field goal to stretch Tennessee's lead to 17-3, a score which held up until late in the fourth quarter. With 6:58 to play, Caldwell substituted Funk for entrenched starter Smith after Smith injured his throwing elbow. Funk quickly threw an apparent touchdown pass to Matthews-- but it was taken away when officials ruled Matthews had stepped out of bounds before coming back in to make the catch in the end zone.
On that possession Funk drove Vanderbilt to the UT 13, only to throw an interception. But he would get another chance, and he would make the most of it.
On a first-down play from the Tennessee 16, Funk threw a strike to Matthews, who came down with it in the back of the end zone. The rejuvenated Commodores trailed 17-10, and their outnumbered fans momentarily had renewed hope.
Caldwell called for an onside kick, and Vanderbilt failed to recover-- but the game still wasn't over. The defense forced Tennessee into a fourth-and-2 play at the Vanderbilt 28. With the game on the line, Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley went for it.
Poole took a handoff around left end and not only got the first down, but a 22-yard touchdown that effectively ended the game.
"I knew it'd be tough, and you have to give Vanderbilt a lot of credit," said Dooley, whose team can qualify for a bowl with a win vs. Kentucky next Saturday. "We had opportunities to put the game away and didn't capitalize. But with all of the mistakes, we still held them to 10 points and found a way to win, and that's all that matters."
Vanderbilt's 2010 season finale comes next Saturday at home vs. Wake Forest. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m., with CSS handling the regional telecast. The Demon Deacons lost to Clemson 30-10 Saturday to drop to 2-9, 1-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We don't have school this week, so we don't have to deal with classes next week or papers or tests," said Greenstone. "We can concentrate a little more on football this week."
Rob Lohr, who started the game at defensive tackle, sprained an elbow in the first quarter and did not return.
Casey Hayward's interception was his sixth of the season.