NASHVILLE – It is official. For the 23rd consecutive season, Vanderbilt will not go to a bowl game.
A season that started 4-0 has blown up with six consecutive losses, the latest a crushing 48-43 defeat at the hands of Kentucky. The Wildcats entered the game having not won an SEC road game since 2002 and had the league’s worst defense. They exited with another win over Vanderbilt – the Cats’ seventh in the last nine games of the series.
“We didn’t look past Kentucky,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “We didn’t take them lightly. We know any team can beat us any day and we know we can beat any other team any day.”
The Tennessee game remains on the schedule, but for all intents and purposes, Vanderbilt’s season is over.
The Commodores (4-6, 2-5) fell into an unthinkable 34-10 halftime hole, and trailed 48-17 midway through the third quarter, but scored 26 straight points in desperation mode to almost make it a game. The final touchdown came with 2:09 to play on Jay Cutler’s fifth touchdown pass to Earl Bennett, but Kentucky fell on the onside kick and ran out the clock.
“I think it was just an extremely poor first half by the whole football team, which is obviously my fault,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “I need to get the team ready to play.”
Cutler set school records for pass attempts (66) and completions (39) and Bennett set the school record with five touchdown receptions (three in the fourth quarter), but it was all too little, too late on this day when a disastrous first half was too much to overcome.
“I’m proud of the way our guys did play in the second half, but we still did not play well enough to overcome the mistakes we made in the first half,” Johnson said.
More discouraging for Vanderbilt – for the second straight week, the Commodores set a school record for most points scored in a loss. Cutler’s final line: 39-for-65, 395 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions.
“We gave it our all out there down toward the end of the game,” Cutler said. “Our line gave it all it could. Our receivers were dead tired. We were running out of people to play. Kentucky’s defense was also dead tired.”
The final stat sheet did not quite reflect the outcome on this beautiful fall afternoon.
Vanderbilt outgained Kentucky 514-365, but three fumbles and several special teams breakdowns killed the Dores.
Vanderbilt actually led 3-0 early in the first quarter. Kevin Joyce recovered a fumble on Kentucky’s first possession, and Bryant Hahnfeldt converted a 33-yard field goal seven plays later. The Commodores appeared to be off to a good start.
“We had some positive things happen early, but we couldn’t follow through with it,” Johnson said.
Then, the Big Blue mist turned into a Perfect Storm of 34 straight Kentucky points –
** Arliss Beach plunged into the end zone from a yard out after a 50-yard screen pass to Little sparked the drive. Kentucky, 7-3.
** Andre Woodson ran in from seven yards out following a 57-yard punt return by Little. Kentucky, 14-3.
** Bo Smith returned a blocked field goal 72 yards for a touchdown. Kentucky, 21-3.
** Taylor Begley booted a 46-yard field goal after a 44-yard run by Little swung field position. Kentucky, 24-3.
** Little scored from three yards out after his 31-yard punt return set the Cats up at the VU 20-yard line. Kentucky, 31-3.
** Begley kicked a 31-yard field goal after Cutler fumbled a snap on fourth-and-one at the Vanderbilt 29-yard line.
Throughout the avalanche, Vanderbilt’s offense was unable to move the ball against the SEC’s worst defense. Cutler was under heavy pressure, and on the rare plays he had protection, he missed his receivers. Vanderbilt could not run the ball, and the special teams were a certified disaster. Kentucky had two punt returns for 44 yards, Vanderbilt had a field goal blocked and fumbled a kickoff return.
“The tide turned when they returned that blocked field goal,” Johnson said. “We just sort of deflated then.”
Vanderbilt’s one positive offensive drive in the first half came at the end of the second quarter when Cutler found Bennett from 13 yards out (Bennett immediately handed the ball to the official after his touchdown). That made the score 34-10 at halftime, a far cry from what was expected at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“We need to move past going to a bowl,” Cutler said. “We lost that opportunity today.”
The season finale against the Volunteers kicks off at 11:30 am CT next Saturday, and will be televised live from Neyland Stadium by Jefferson-Pilot. Tennessee (4-5, 2-4 SEC) defeated Memphis 20-16 Saturday.
Erik Davis (hamstring) and Cheron Thompson (ankle) sat out the game. Both are expected to be ready for Tennessee. Steven Bright (shoulder), Josh Eames (ankle) and Jeff Jennings (knee) all suffered injuries during the course of the game and did not return. Jennings, who injured a knee late in the game, left the stadium on a motorized cart.