NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- The Tennessee Volunteers continued their 20-year gridiron dominance of Vanderbilt with a workmanlike 24-0 victory on a sun-splashed but chilly Saturday afternoon at the Nashville Coliseum. It was the second consecutive year in which the Commodores have failed to score on their cross-state rivals, and it was Vanderbilt's 20th consecutive loss in the series. The Commodores finished Bobby Johnson's initial season 2-10, while the Volunteers improved to 7-4.
The Commodores had hoped to perhaps catch a more-vulnerable-than-usual Tennessee team on a down day, but it wasn't to be. Playing their last game of the 2002 season in the home of the NFL Tennessee Titans, Vanderbilt entered the game already racked by a mind-boggling series of injuries. But in the first half the Vanderbilt offense quickly sustained a few more serious injuries that crippled their chances even further.
Starting quarterback Jay Cutler left the game after bruising a hip in the first quarter, and fullback Bara Cola left the game with a knee injury midway through the second quarter and did not return. Leading rusher Kwane Doster dressed but did not play at all due to an ankle sprain. Last but not least, defensive back Lorenzo Parker, who had prepared during the week to play tailback in an emergency, was knocked out of the game with what was thought to be a concussion.
Consequently, but not surprisingly, Vanderbilt's offense was largely impotent against a tough Tennessee defense.
"They were running three linemen and four linebackers at us," said Matthew Tant, who played at both tailback and fullback. "We tried to adjust, but could not. Plus, it was hard to get the offense going with the field position we had throughout the game."
How bad was the injury situation? Late in the first half Vanderbilt's offense was running out of an 'I' formation that consisted of backup quarterback Benji Walker, little-used walk-on fullback Clark Lea (of local Montgomery Bell Academy), and 5-7, 180-pound walk-on tailback Jason Bourque of Lafayette, La.
Though Tennessee is traditionally a team loaded with big play makers on offense, the Vols on this day relied on a methodical but effective ground attack to dominate the clock and the scoreboard. Tennessee outgained Vanderbilt 371-196, outrushed the Commodores 242-117, won the turnover war 2-0, and held the ball for 36:49. Meanwhile Vol quarterback Casey Clausen, who was questionable for the game, did play and completed 12-of-21 passes for 120 yards.
On the first play of the game, Cutler was hit hard on the hip by a Tennessee defender on a passing attempt, and came up slightly gimpy. After Vanderbilt went three-and-out, the Vols mounted a 71-yard scoring drive, with Jabari Davis diving over from the 1 for the score.
Vandy stopped Tennessee on its next possession, but Vol punter Dustin Colquitt pinned Vanderbilt on its 1-yard line. The Commodore offense had to go ultra-conservative and failed to move the ball on three downs. On fourth-and-nine from the two, punter Greg Johnson fumbled the snap and had to fall on it for a safety. The miscue gave the Vols a 9-0 lead with 1:24 left in the first.
Behind the running of Cedric Houston, the Vols tacked on another touchdown with 11:49 left in the second, but missed on a 2-point conversion attempt. Later in the quarter the Vols' Marvin Mitchell laid a vicious hit on Jason Bourque at the Commodore 42, and Tennessee came up with the loose ball. The turnover led to a 28-yard field goal by Alex Walls with 4:05 left in the half.
Vanderbilt's makeshift offense put together a 77-yard ALMOST-scoring drive late in the first half. Walker, demonstrating some brilliant broken-field scrambling, gave the Commodores a first down at the Vol 5, but the offense began moving backwards. With one second left, a Walker pass went through Dan Stricker's hands in the left corner of the end zone. On the last play of the half, Greg Johnson missed on a chip-shot field goal.
Tennessee consequently took a convincing, yet not insurmountable, 18-0 lead to the locker room at halftime.
But Tennessee would get the ball first in the second half, and the Vols opened with a 82-yard march which not only resulted in a field goal-- it consumed 7 minutes and 34 seconds of clock. Vanderbilt's offense failed to answer.
The Commodores attempted to throw the ball a little more than usual against the Vols, and sub Benji Walker completed 6-of-13 passes for 81 yards with one interception. But without a running game, Vanderbilt was never able to sustain a drive.
"We're short on running backs and tried to open it up a little," said Walker, who played every snap from the third series on. "But they have some good athletes out there and that made it difficult. When you play a team like that, it is going to be tough regardless."
Vanderbilt fans had one genuine moment of excitement early in the fourth quarter when the Commodores successfully executed a fake punt on a fourth down from their own 14-yard line-- Tant took a short snap and burst up the middle for 31 yards. But the drive later stalled when a fourth-down pass from Walker to Stricker came up a yard short of the first-down marker, and the Commodores never seriously threatened again to score.
Walls added another field goal with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter to provide the final margin of victory.
With the 2002 season now in the record books, Bobby Johnson's staff must look ahead to recruiting and the 2003 season. Tennessee (7-4) finishes the season next week at home against Kentucky, and will be a candidate for a second-tier bowl.
"[Vanderbilt's senior players] have worked extremely hard," said Bobby Johnson. "Jim May and Jamie Byrum have played every snap of the season. Everyone wrote off Rushen Jones, and he's come back to play well in the second half of the season. Without them it would have been extremely tough this season."
GAME NOTES: The Commodores suffered a number of other injuries besides those to Cutler and Cola. Punt returner Lorenzo Parker left the game with what was thought to be a concussion, but later returned and played some in the backfield. Zeke Brandon suffered an injury to his ankle in the second quarter and did not return. Middle linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who as usual played like a madman on defense and had a number of big tackles, injured an elbow late in the game, an injury that required X-rays.
Receiver Dan Stricker was held to two catches for 12 yards. He ended a brilliant career with 2,880