Cincinnati downs Vanderbilt in Liberty, 31-24

MEMPHIS-- Cincinnati's R.D. Abernathy returned a fourth quarter kickoff 90 yards to give his team a 24-21 lead over Vanderbilt that it would never relinquish. The Bearcats then added a field goal and went on to prevail 31-24 in the 53rd Annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

The script was set for Vanderbilt. Jordan Rodgers, who had played so well in the second half of the Commodores' regular season, struggled in his first bowl game, completed just 4-of-14 passes for a measly 26 yards. Enter veteran Larry Smith who had lost his long time starting position to Rodgers midway through the season.

Smith came in the game in the third quarter and looked like he was going to finish his career as the only Commodore quarterback to lead his team to two bowl wins. Unfortunately, Smith would be destined to settle for another honor less prestigious, he would be the only quarterback to play in two bowl games for the 'Dores.

The fifth year senior was brought into the game after Jordan Rodgers threw an interception early in the third quarter and after a three-and-out initial series. He then promptly led his team to an 8 play, 52-yard scoring drive to tie the score at 14 with 3:53 left in the third quarter. On that drive Smith made big completions including a 12-yard hookup to Wesley Tate and a 15-yard connection to Jordan Matthews that put Vandy at the UC 5-yard-line. Jerron Seymour's 5-yard scoring run had the Vanderbilt half of the stadium rocking.

After Cincinnati's Tony Miliano kicked a 44-yard field goal to put his team on top 17-14, Smith went to work again, looking like he might just do the unthinkable. Smith connected with Chris Boyd for a 68-yard catch-and-run that put Vanderbilt back in front of the Bearcats, 21-17.

However, after Abernathy's long kickoff return, Vanderbilt and Smith could muster little offense. In response to the devastating return, the VU offense registered two consecutive 3-and-out possessions. Then, after Vanderbilt blocked a UC field goal attempt that gave VU the ball at its own 32, Smith fired a errant pass to an open Jordan Mathews that was intercepted by Nick Temple and returned to the Commodore 31. It took just three plays for Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead to run it in and give the Bearcats a seemingly insurmountable 31-21 lead with 1:52 to go in the game. Pead finished with 149 yards on 28 carries and was named the Liberty Bowl's Most Valuable Player.

In the end Vanderbilt and Smith would go down swinging. Smith led the 'Dores on a 10-play, 55-yard drive that culminated with a Ryan Fowler 35-yard field goal. The score pulled the Commodores to within a touchdown and enabled them to attempt an on-side kick, which failed, with 24 seconds left in the game.

"That was a great football team that we played today," said James Franklin of Cincinnati. "They played a smart, disciplined game and I have tremendous respect for their head coach and players."

Both teams struggled early in the game offensively. Neither team managed a first down until Cincinnati's Pead ran 10 yards for a first down with 9:20 remaining in the second quarter. However, Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, who picked off two passes during the game to tie the VU career record at 15, intercepted a Zach Collaros pass and skillfully returned it to the UC 22-yard-line to put his team in a fine situation. Zac Stacy bulled through the heralded Bearcat run defense to put the Commodores up 7-0 with 7:34 to go in the first quarter.

Cincinnati's George Winn ran 69-yards along the Bearcat sideline to knot the score at 7-7 in the only play of that drive. Collaros then fired a scoring pass to Anthony McClung with just 12 seconds remaining in the half to put the Bearcats up 14-7 at the break.

Cornerback Casey Hayward was named the Most Valuable Defensive Player for Vanderbilt and the venerable Larry Smith, who is the only Commodore quarterback to play in two bowls, was named the Most Valuable Offensive Player for Vandy.

"Larry is an amazing guy," said Franklin of his veteran signal caller. "I would hire Larry tomorrow to coach. I would hire Larry tomorrow to work in the weight room. I'd hire Larry to work where ever he wants to, but the funny thing is Larry will probably end up hiring me."

Vanderbilt finishes its season 6-7 while Cincinnati improves to 10-3.