Jay Cutler hit Earl Bennett for the go-ahead touchdown on a 5-yard slant pass with 1:11 left to play, and the Commodore defense withstood a last-minute touchdown drive by the Vols, as Vanderbilt (5-6, 3-5) hung on to win a 28-24 victory before 107,487 at Neyland Stadium.
"With all of the seniors we have had on this team and the ones that have been through these battles through their careers, of all the wins we've had, I think this is the most memorable one," said Cutler.
With the victory, Vanderbilt:
- defeated Tennessee for the first time in 23 years, and for the first time in Knoxville in 30 years;
- stopped a six-game losing streak, and ended its season on a winning note;
- finished the season with its highest win total (5) in six years, and its most SEC wins (3) in 14 years;
- insured that Tennessee (4-6, 2-5 SEC) would not go to a bowl for the first time since 1988.
The Volunteers, which had trailed much of the first three quarters, finally took their first lead of the game with 8:25 left to play on a 29-yard James Wilhoit field goal. Vanderbilt was unable to move on its next two possessions, but its defense came up big, forcing punts on two Tennessee possessions.
Vandy got the ball back with 1:40 left to play, and pulled off the slickest, quickest two-minute drill you might ever see. Sixty-three yards and three Cutler-to-Bennett passes later, the Commodores had retaken the lead at 28-24.
"I was worried that we scored too quickly," said Cutler. "We've done that before, but there was nothing we could do about it. We left it in the defense's hands, and they didn't let us down."
Indeed. The Vandy defense had surrendered 228 yards on the ground to tailback Arian Foster, but this time Tennessee was forced to go to the air. Rick Clausen expertly moved the Vols 64 yards to the Commodore 11, from which he took three shots at the end zone. On the final play, which began with 0:01 showing on the clock, Clausen's pass to C.J. Fayton was intercepted by Jared Fagan.
Fagan was mobbed, and the Vanderbilt bench exploded in jubilation. Vandy's seniors, many of whom had stayed around for five years, had gone out winners.
"I was asked earlier in the week what was the best feeling I've had since I've been here at Vanderbilt," said senior captain Moses Osemwegie. "Well, this is it. This tops it all."
For Vanderbilt, the heroes were many. Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt's sensational freshman receiver, turned in another monster game (167 yards on 14 catches) and broke Jabar Gaffney's SEC record for catches by a freshman. Cassen Jackson-Garrison, getting his first start ever (and in his hometown for that matter), picked up 121 all-purpose yards.
Marlon White had a pair of touchdown receptions.
And Cutler finished up an illustrious career in style, throwing for 315 yards and three touchdowns. He finished seventh on the SEC's all-time total offense list, and 11th all-time in passing yardage. More importantly, his last pass for Vanderbilt turned out to be the winning touchdown in a win over Tennessee.
The loss, Tennessee's sixth of the season, was a demoralizing one for the Vols, who had at one time been projected as the No. 3 team in the nation. UT had rallied from a 21-7 first-half deficit to take a 24-21 lead, but couldn't contain Cutler and Bennett on the Dores' final drive.
"I guess sometimes before you start building back you have to hit rock bottom," said UT coach Phillip Fulmer. "I'd say everybody's egos are pretty bruised right now."
Vanderbilt grabbed the lead early in the first quarter on its second possession of the game, mainly due to the receiving and rushing of Jackson-Garrison. The sophomore tailback turned a screen pass into a 35-yard gain, before bulling into the end zone on a 2-yard run.
Tennessee would answer immediately with a three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Foster, running the same off-tackle play three straight times for 66, 8, and 6 yards, scored to make it 7-7.
Vandy's second TD was set up by a sensational, 47-yard catch-and-run by George Smith, which put VU in business at the UT 16. Cutler hit Marlon White on a slant pass on third down to give the Commodores a 14-7 lead.
After forcing a UT punt, Cutler drove Vandy 80 yards for a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The touchdown came on a controversial catch near the front pylon by White. Vol fans thought White didn't hold the ball long enough, but a review reaffirmed the official's ruling.
But Tennessee would hold the ball for almost the final 8 minutes of the first half and cut the deficit to 7 on a 5-yard Clausen pass to Chris Hannon. Vandy was left with no time to operate, and the 21-14 score held up until halftime.
The third quarter was scoreless, with Vanderbilt stuffing Tennessee on downs at the Commodore 3 on the Vols' only serious scoring threat. But the Vols finally knotted the score 21-21 on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 1-yard somersault by Foster.
Tennessee dominated the field position battle through most of the second half. Jonathan Hefney broke loose for several big punt returns, and the Vols were able to convert one of them into a 29-yard Wilhoit field goal with 8:25 to play.
Twice more Vanderbilt's offense was unable to move, and twice Bobby Johnson elected to punt rather than attempt a fourth-down conversion. The decision paid off-- both times the Commodore defense stopped the Vols and forced them to give the ball back on punts.
Vandy got the ball back for the last time with 1:40 left. The final drive, one destined to go down in annals of Commodore history, went as follows:
- Cutler over the middle to Bennett for 15 yards to the Tennessee 48, first down.
- Cutler to Bennett on a beautifully thrown 31-yard sideline pass, first down at the 17.
- Cutler throws incomplete to Bennett in the end zone, but Tennessee was called for pass interference, giving Vandy a first down at the 5.
- Cutler quick slant pass to Bennett across the middle, touchdown.
"We kept playing even when they came at us," said Bobby Johnson. "We pulled it out with some tired people. It was a good way for a great bunch of seniors to go out."
A happy throng of Vanderbilt supporters gathered to greet and congratulate the Commodores outside Neyland Stadium following Vandy's first win here since 1975.
The Volunteers finish the regular season next Saturday at Kentucky. Its season complete, Vanderbilt's coaches turn their attention toward recruiting. The Commodores open the 2006 season vs. MTSU at home, September 2.
Bryant Hahnfeldt suffered a serious ACL injury to his left knee attempting a tackle on a punt return in the third quarter and was unable to return. Essentially, it took three players to replace the versatile Hahnfeldt. Kyle Keown punted four punts-- Patrick Johnson kicked the PAT after Vanderbilt's final touchdown-- and walk-on Bill Robertson handled Vandy's final kickoff, driving it through the end zone for a touchback.
Besides Jackson-Garrison, freshman receiver Bryant Anderson also got the first start of his career.
Scouts from the Music City and Independence Bowls were in the pressbox to watch the game, as was former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer.
Erik Davis and Cheron Thompson both missed their second straight games due to injuries. Vandy was also without the services of its starting tailback Jeff Jennings, who tore an ACL in the Kentucky game.
Much more coverage coming Sunday and Monday on Vanderbilt's historic victory, including interviews from the locker room, commentary by Brent Wiseman, and photo galleries by VandyMania's Stan Jones.