For the third time this season, Vanderbilt (2-8, 1-6) appeared to have a win in hand entering the final stanza-- but the hard-luck Commodores found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This time it was a bevy of breakdowns in the kicking game, an impotent offense and a pair of Shane Boyd-to-Glenn Holt fourth-quarter touchdown passes that combined to do in Vandy.
The familiar, bitter ending left just about everyone in the black and gold section wondering just how much misery a single team (and fan base) can take in a single season. For Vandy fans, it was a late collapse reminiscent of the Commodores' heart-rending losses to Ole Miss and Rutgers earlier this season.
"We emptied just about every cylinder in the gun to shoot ourselves in the foot," said a frustrated Vandy coach Bobby Johnson. "We just self-destructed and didn't give ourselves a chance to win the game."
Though the game had been ugly on both sides, the Commodores appeared headed toward their third win of the season entering the game's final fifteen minutes. The Vandy defense was pitching a shutout against a Kentucky team depleted by injuries. Little did anyone realize, the dormant Wildcats were about to come to life.
On the final quarter's first play, UK tailback Arliss Beach picked up a 52-yard gain to the Vandy 17. Five plays later, on a third-and-goal from the 7, Boyd located wide receiver Glenn Holt in the corner of the end zone for a scoring toss. With 12:12 left in the game, the Big Blue had trimmed the lead to 13-7.
The two teams would exchange punts before Kentucky blocked an Abtin Iranmanesh punt to take possession at the Commodore 21. But this time the Vandy defense would hold, with cornerback Bill Alford leaping to break up a Boyd aerial in the end zone on fourth down. Vandy took over at its own 11-yard line.
"We made a big play in the fourth quarter with about four minutes to go when we knocked down that pass," Johnson said. "That's when we have to take the ball and move it, or get great field position if we do have to punt it, but we need to win the game right there."
It didn't happen-- Vandy's offense failed to seal the deal and went three-and-out. A shanked punt gave Kentucky the ball back at the VU 36, and given one final opportunity, the Wildcats pounced. From the 25, Boyd lobbed a wobbly pass to the end zone, for which Holt outjumped Dominique Morris. UK's Taylor Begley, who had missed a pair of field goals in the first half, nailed the extra point to give the 'Cats their first lead of the game with 1:39 left.
But the Commodores still had time to drive into field goal range. Jay Cutler, who played all but one offensive series Saturday despite a sprained right ankle, directed the black and gold to the UK 50 with a minute left. But an intentional grounding call cost Vandy a down and 15 big yards, and the Wildcat defense went into a prevent. Cutler's protection broke down, and after three passes fell incomplete, Vandy was toasted.
The Vanderbilt offense, which had outgained Kentucky in the first half 265 yards to 122, seemed to come unglued after scoring on its first possession of the second half. In the fatal fourth quarter Vandy had four offensive possessions, none of which produced more than one first down.
"In the first half we were definitely running the ball a lot better," said senior captain Justin Geisinger. "For some reason in the second half we weren't executing on the ground as well. It just came down to simple execution a couple of times in the second half, where we could have put the game away. We just couldn't do it."
The Commodores have now been outscored 78-7 in the fourth quarter in 2004.
After a scoreless first quarter in which neither offense accomplished much, Vanderbilt finally went on top 7-0 with 12:29 to go in the second quarter on Jeff Jennings' one-yard touchdown run. The play capped off a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive.
Vandy drove to another first-and-goal situation at the UK 9 with under four minutes left in the first half, but failed to add to its lead. After three running plays advanced the ball only to the 3, Patrick Johnson's 21-yard field goal attempt from an odd angle went wide left. Despite outgaining Kentucky 265-122 in the first half, the Dores' lead at the break stood at only 7-0.
VU would score again on its first possession of the second half. Kwane Doster, who led Vandy in rushing with 84 yards on 12 carries, returned the second-half kickoff 54 yards to the UK 37. This time Vandy would capitalize on the short field: six plays later from the Wildcat 13, Chris Young made a diving catch of a Cutler slant pass for another six points.
But Johnson's PAT attempt again went wide, making the lead 13-0. No one realized it then, but the one point would be the difference in the game.
Despite his injury, Cutler still completed 16-of-32 passes for 202 yards and rushed for 25 more yards. But Cutler's mobility was obviously limited, and he and backup Steven Bright were sacked four times by Kentucky defenders.
"There's no question this was extremely disappointing for all our seniors," said Geisinger. "This was our last SEC road game. Coming in here we felt like we had a shot against a pretty good football team. We just didn't get it done. We didn't capitalize when we had the opportunities."
The Commodores (2-8, 1-6 SEC) close the books on the 2004 season next Saturday at home vs. No. 15 Tennessee, which was idle Saturday. With victories over Vandy and Kentucky in its final two games, the Vols (7-2, 5-1) will advance to the SEC Championship Game Dec. 4.
Personnel notes: Despite his questionable status before the game, Cutler played every offensive possession but one. With 227 yards of total offense, he climbed past Eric Jones on the school's all-time career list.
True freshman Hamilton Holliday started the game at right guard in place of injured starter Nigel Seaman. Another true freshman, receiver Sean Walker, made his first appearance of the season due to injuries in the wide receiver corps. And Lamar Divens got his second start of the season at defensive end.
Injury update: Vanderbilt leading tackler Moses Osemwegie was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Tight end Dustin Dunning, who made several big catches, also left the game in the fourth quarter with a foot injury.
For the seventh time in the 2004 season, Vanderbilt had the lead or was tied at halftime.
Despite the loss, Vanderbilt retains the edge in the all-time series vs. Kentucky, 37-36-4. Vanderbilt's last SEC road win came in 2000 vs. Kentucky in Lexington.