NASHVILLE-- It was hard to tell exactly who won this one when the players left the field. The scoreboard said Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 33, but the Vols were not very happy, and the Commodores, while clearly disappointed, had an energized look of a team that flirted with the improbable.
Tennessee won the SEC East on Vanderbilt’s home field, but the Commodores fought and scrapped to the very last minute. It was not until Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler threw an interception with 2:07 to play that the Vols could finally put this one in the win column as Vanderbilt battled and battled from behind all afternoon.
“I thought our guys came out and played extremely hard,” Johnson said. “They believed they had a chance to win the game. This is what you need in a game like this – a rivalry game – for our program to step up and put some pressure on the other team and I think we came a little closer.”
Vanderbilt finished the year 2-9 and 1-7 in the SEC. It was the third consecutive two-win season of Bobby Johnson's head coaching tenure, and the fourth straight for Vanderbilt.
“We play well at times and then we make mistakes that keep you from being successful in certain drives,” Johnson said. “We were playing a pretty good team out there today. Our guys kept playing and plugging. I guess it was sort of the story of the season.”
Cutler completed 22 of 33 passes for 314 yards, but he threw two interceptions and fumbled twice. The 314 yards were a season-high, and the two interceptions were the first he had thrown since the Ole Miss game in Week Two.
“We came out here and had a good showing,” Cutler said. “We needed that. We felt like we cold win. We went out there with fire and passion. Those seniors played their hearts out.”
Vanderbilt receiver Brandon Smith stepped up in Erik Davis’ absence (flu) with 160 yards on eight catches. For the day, Tennessee gained 425 yards to Vanderbilt’s 420, a far cry from the last three matchups which all ended in Tennessee shutouts.
“If we would have had a little more time, we probably would have pulled it out,” Smith said.
The Commodores entered the fourth quarter trailing 38-20, but scored two touchdowns and had the ball on their own 20 trailing 38-33 with 2:16 left. Vandy was 80 yards from ending 22 years of frustration against the Vols. But on the first play, Cutler was pressured by Parys Haralson and Roshaun Fellows intercepted the errant throw. UT then ran out the clock.
Vanderbilt opened the fourth quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run by freshman Jeff Jennings, which capped a 71-yard drive. The Commodores then picked off UT quarterback Rick Clausen for the second time to thwart a UT threat. After an exchange of punts, Dustin Dunning made a brilliant three-yard touchdown catch with 4:30 to play to cap an 87-yard drive. The key play was a 62-yard gain by Marlon White, when he caught a deflected ball and raced nearly the length of the field.
Following the touchdown, Vanderbilt tried an onside kick that UT recovered at the Vanderbilt 43. The Commodores defense forced a three-and-out and UT punted the ball into the end zone, setting up Vanderbilt’s final attempt.
The Commodores struggled early, but found a spark in the second quarter when Cutler found Smith for an 80-yard touchdown pass. After a successful two-point conversion, Vanderbilt was within 28-14 and the VU sideline was alive.
Jeff Jennings capped a 77-yard drive later in the quarter to cut the lead to 28-20. But Patrick Johnson missed his second extra point of the day (and third in a row) and the Commodores entered halftime trailing 28-20. Johnson was benched in favor of Abtin Iranmanesh on an attempt in the fourth quarter, which was successful.
Tennessee jumped out on top early, converting a Cutler fumble into seven points just over two minutes into the game. It was 14-0 a few minutes later when Cedric Houston (three touchdowns) ran 11 yards to cap another strong UT scoring drive.
Vanderbilt answered when Cutler found White on a pretty 11-yard hookup to cut the lead to 14-6, but Tennessee put two more touchdowns up on its next two possessions, the last one coming after Cutler’s second fumble of the day.
Tennessee (8-2, 6-1) finishes the season next Saturday at home vs. Kentucky, before meeting Auburn Dec. 4 in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Shut out of the post-season bowls for the 22nd consecutive year, Vanderbilt opens up in 2005 with a road game at Wake Forest.
Bill Trocchi is online editor for Athlon Sports.