Quarterback Ryan Hart completed 31 of 40 passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, as Rutgers improved to 3-2. Leonard gained 50 yards on 15 carries and had three rushing touchdowns, and caught nine passes for 64 yards and another touchdown.
Down 34-29 with six minutes left, Hart and Rutgers assembled an 11-play, 68-yard touchdown drive with Hart completing five of six passes for 50 yards. Leonard's one-yard run made for the fifth touchdown in six second-half possessions for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers outscored Vanderbilt 21-0 in the fourth quarter.
"Tough way to lose it and a tough one to lose," said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. "I give Rutgers a lot of credit. We basically could not stop them in the fourth quarter. They did a great job."
In the final minute, Vanderbilt appeared momentarily to put itself in position to win or tie when Cutler completed a 66-yard bomb to Marlon White that would have put Vanderbilt at the Rutgers nine-yard line with 0:15 to play. But officials ruled that Cutler had stepped past the line of scrimmage before launching the pass, making it illegal. Replays indicated the call was very close, if not incorrect.
"The officials did not lose this football game for us," Johnson said. "We should have been in command long before that."
For Vanderbilt, quarterback Jay Cutler rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown and completed 14 of 18 passes for 260 yards and another touchdown.
In the first half, Vanderbilt cornerback Dominique Morris returned an interception for Vanderbilt's first touchdown, and recovered a Rutgers fumble for a second turnover.
Vanderbilt took a 3-0 lead on a 33-yard field goal by Patrick Johnson, then extended it to 10-0 on Morris's interception. Following a 35-yard field goal by Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito, freshman tailback Jeff Jennings scored his first college touchdown on a nine-yard run to give Vanderbilt a 17-3 lead. Jennings took an option pitch from Cutler and ran untouched around left end for the score.
Vanderbilt pushed its lead to 20-3 with 0:02 to play before halftime with a 44-yard Patrick Johnson field goal. The Commodore defense, which had produced five turnovers a week earlier against Mississippi State, had forced turnovers on three of Rutgers' six first-half possessions.
Vanderbilt took a seemingly safe 27-3 lead early in the third quarter when Cutler hit Erik Davis right down the middle with a beautifully thrown 27-yard scoring pass. Rutgers answered quickly, however, as Leonard scored two short touchdowns in a 2:30 span to cut the lead to 27-16 in the third quarter.
Vanderbilt stretched its lead to 34-16 when Cutler scored late in the third quarter from two yards out on an option keeper. Cutler set the score up when he hit Brandon Smith on a 71-yard pass play. Smith had 130 yards on five catches.
In the fourth quarter, the Scarlet Knights pulled within 34-29 when Hart hit Leonard with a nine-yard touchdown pass with 9:30 to play. The touchdown was set up by a 27-yard fumble return by Devraun Thompson. Rutgers would force a Vanderbilt punt to get the ball back for its go-ahead drive.
"It is my fault we lost this football game," Johnson said. "We had opportunities. Our players have to realize every play may make the difference."
Vanderbilt goes on the road next week to face Georgia in an 11:30 a.m. Jefferson-Pilot televised matchup. The third-ranked Bulldogs (4-1) should take a tumble in the ratings next week after being upset 19-14 Saturday by No. 17 Tennessee.
Bill Trocchi is Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports.