NASHVILLE-- On a cold, soggy afternoon at Vanderbilt Stadium, a much-maligned Vanderbilt football team warmed the hearts of a few, proud souls who ventured out to cheer them on. Behind a four-touchdown performance by quarterback Jay Cutler, and a dominating performance by an improving defense, Vanderbilt snapped a 23-game Southeastern Conference losing streak Saturday with a convincing, 28-17 home win over Kentucky.
In a wild postgame melee, hundreds of overjoyed students and fans stormed Dudley Field and destroyed both goalposts. And why the heck not? Besides ridding themselves of the hideous SEC streak, the Commodores, in one fell swoop:
- gave Bobby Johnson his first SEC win;
- avoided the first 11-loss season in school history;
- snapped a 13-game losing streak vs. Division I-A competition;
- dealt a big blow to Kentucky's (4-6, 1-5) bowl hopes; and
- won their first SEC home game since October, 1998.
It had been a long time coming.
"We have great fans," said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson, who had received a Gatorade shower as the final seconds ticked away. "We have to have great fans to stick with us through that kind of a streak.
"But they did a good job of taking down the goalposts."
"It just feels excellent," said wide receiver Erik Davis, who caught two touchdown passes. "Now we just have to start a new streak. We've got to build on this game and use it as a springboard."
The obvious hero was Cutler, who threw for four touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 129 yards. But Cutler was quick to praise his teammates.
"This was definitely the best game I've played so far," Cutler said. "But it was a total team effort today. The offense played great, and our defense started strong. It's a great feeling, and a great win for the university."
For weeks Commodore fans had wondered what might happen were Vandy finally to assemble four good quarters of football-- and in the next-to-last game of the season, they found out. The offense committed no turnovers; the special teams kept dangerous return man Derek Abney from making any big plays; and the defense sacked Jared Lorenzen four times, and never allowed the inevitable Wildcat comeback.
"We got real good pressure on Lorenzen," said defensive end Jovan Haye, who turned in another monster game with two of Vandy's four sacks. "Our goal was to make him move out of the pocket. We did that tonight."
Chilly, wet weather held the crowd down to 26,440, and as had been the case at several other home games this season, the home fans were outnumbered. But a charged-up Vanderbilt team managed to take the Wildcat faithful out of the game in the second quarter when it jumped to a 14-3 halftime lead.
Wildcat kicker Taylor Begley scored the game's first points late in the first quarter by kicking a 36-yard field goal. But the Commodores would take command in the second quarter on two touchdown passes, both of which featured nifty runs after the catch by receivers.
Early in the second quarter Cutler set up a score with a 24-yard option keeper to the Wildcat 24. On first down Cutler, pressured by three defenders, threaded a pass to Erik Davis, who scored behind a block from Brandon Smith. Patrick Johnson's extra point gave Vandy a 7-3 lead.
Late in the same quarter, Vandy scored again on a third-and-2 play from the UK 17. On what was designed to be a safe pass for a first down, Matthew Tant hauled in Cutler's aerial running laterally, and turned upfield. The sophomore made a dive for the goal line as he was tripped, and was awarded 6 points.
Jared Lorenzen moved Kentucky to the Vanderbilt 23 with less than two minutes to play in the half, but Kelechi Ohanaja's interception at the 13 preserved a 14-3 halftime lead for the Commodores.
"The interception was a huge play," Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks said. "Jared was pressured. We had breakdowns in our protection most of the day. We were turning people loose on him, or getting beat physically."
Early in the third quarter Cutler hooked up with Marlon White, who was streaking uncovered down the middle for the end zone. Cutler lofted a perfect pass, which White caught easily for a 43-yard reception, and Vandy led 21-3.
Kentucky answered with a 10-play, 72-yard drive, which culminated in a 4-yard Arliss Beach run for a score.
But Vandy wasted little time in delivering a knockout punch. On a quarterback draw, Jay Cutler went 51 yards up the middle to the UK 29, then found Davis three plays later for his fourth touchdown pass of the day, a 10-yarder.
The 28-10 lead would hold up, as the Vandy defense stopped the Cats on three straight possessions. Kentucky did add 7 points on a Lorenzen-to-Chris Bernard scoring pass with 28 seconds left, but it came too late to pose a legitimate threat
With seconds remaining, Kentucky tried an on-side kick, but when Nick Getter covered it, the Commodores began to exchange high-fives. Cutler took a knee, and the melee was on.
"This win, of course, builds a lot of confidence for our players," said Johnson. "I'm glad to see that now I don't have to answer any more questions about the streak."
When all was said and done, Vanderbilt had outrushed Kentucky 246-168, and won the time-of-possession and turnover wars.
"I have to give Vanderbilt a lot of credit," said Brooks. "They obviously felt this game was more important than I was able to convince our team of the importance of this game."
"I'm really embarrassed," said UK linebacker Dustin Williams. "I'm embarrassed for our team, our coaches, and our fans who traveled. Vanderbilt is a good team. They came out and kicked our butt."
With renewed confidence, the Commodores (2-9, 1-6 SEC) travel to Knoxville next Saturday to wind up the season against cross-state rival Tennessee. Kickoff is set for noon Central. Phillip Fulmer's Vols crushed Mississippi State Saturday to improve to 8-2, 4-2 in the SEC.
Saturday was the final game at Vanderbilt Stadium for 13 seniors, who were recognized before the game: Jason Bourque, running back, Lafayette, La.; Curtis Brancheau, tight end, Greenville, Tex.; Zeke Brandon, fullback, Copperas Cove, Tex.; Pat Brunner, linebacker, Cincinnati, Ohio; Jason Daniels, snapper / tight end, Southlake, Tex.; Nick Getter, Tight End, Round Rock, Tex.; Ian Gaines, safety, Denton, Tex.; Abtin Iranmanesh, kicker/punter, Madison, Ala.; Nick Lyle, safety, Cincinnati, Ohio; Dan Murphy, tight end, Shaker Heights, Ohio; Jordan Pettit, offensive guard, Olive Branch, Miss.; Libnir Telusca, defensive end, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Benji Walker, quarterback, Brentwood, Tenn.
Vanderbilt's win preserved the school's lead in the all-time series vs. Kentucky, which now stands at 37-35-4.
Injured offensive tackle Justin Geisinger started the game despite a pulled hamstring, but left the game in the second quarter. Backup Ryan King handled most of the snaps from that point on. Running back Kwane Doster, nursing a sore shoulder, did not play.
True freshman Jonathan Loyte got his first career start at tight end, and recorded his first catch of the season, a 7-yarder in the second quarter. Senior defensive end Libnir Telusca also got his first start ever.
The goalposts were last seen heading down West End Avenue.