Vols end Vandy's season on sour note, 31-16

KNOXVILLE-- Montario Hardesty rushed for 174 yards and a touchdown, and Jonathan Crompton threw a pair of touchdown passes, as Tennessee knocked off Vanderbilt 31-16 Saturday evening. The Commodores finished the season 2-10 (0-8 in SEC play), while the Volunteers achieved bowl eligibility, improving to 6-5 with one game left.

Though the Commodores dropped their eighth game in a row, they managed to stay within striking distance until the very end. After giving up 24 points in the first half, Vandy's defense shut out Tennessee in the second half, while the offense cut the margin to 24-16 with 2:45 left.

Not until Wes Brown intercepted a desperation Mackenzi Adams pass in the final seconds and returned it for a score was the outcome secure.

Playing their twelfth game in twelve weeks, with three starters added to the sidelined list in the past week, the Commodores simply didn't have enough gas in the tank to complete one last drive. Still, playing before 100,124 against their in-state rivals, utilizing a number of inexperienced players, Vanderbilt refused to go out with merely a whimper.

"They never felt sorry for themselves," said head coach Bobby Johnson of his players. "It's been a bad year. There's no other way to look at it. But our guys are pretty special."

The Vols looked unstoppable in jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but the much-maligned Commodore offense showed some spark. After a Ryan Fowler field goal, Adams directed the team on a 94-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 3-yard scoring pass to Ryan van Rensburg that tied the game at 10-10.

Crompton would direct Tennessee on a 72-yard scoring drive to put Tennessee ahead 17-10. Late in the first half, Vanderbilt was driving in an attempt to tie the game before halftime. The Commodores came up short on a fourth-and-2 play, giving Tennessee the ball at the Vol 39 with 0:35 left.

Tennessee capitalized with a beautifully executed four-play blitzkrieg (aided by a personal foul penalty) and scored on a 16-yard pass from Crompton to tight end Luke Stocker. The Vols would take a 24-10 lead to the locker room.

"We thought we could make it, and we thought we could stop them if we didn't make it," said Johnson of the ill-fated decision. "But every decision has repercussions, and if we had known what was going to happen, we obviously wouldn't have done it that way."

The defense seemed to come out in the second half with renewed passion. In the third quarter, Vanderbilt capitalized after Jamie Graham picked off a batted Crompton pass. A 27-yard Ryan Fowler field goal cut Tennessee's lead to 24-13.

That score held up until the final five minutes when Vanderbilt drove the ball deep into Tennessee territory, getting a first-and-goal at the Vol 2 on a pass interference call. But a false start penalty put the Commodores in reverse, and the offense could manage only a field goal, making the score 24-16 with 2:54 left.

Still, the Commodores refused to die. After failing to recover an onsides kick, they stopped the Vols on downs and got the ball back on their own 25 with 0:26 remaining. On third down Mackenzi Adams, about to be sacked, threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Brown, who rumbled in for a score.

Warren Norman capped off a sensational rookie season by breaking Herschel Walker's SEC record for all-purpose yardage by a freshman, finishing the season with 1,926 total yards.

Vanderbilt's 16 points was a season high for SEC games.

"I think it was our [offense's] best performance," said Johnson. "We just made too many errors when we were in position to make first downs or big plays in the game, whether it was dropped balls, or we let someone in there to get a sack."

GAME NOTES:

Three Commodores missed the game due to injuries. Receiver Alex Washington, cornerback Myron Lewis, and outside linebacker Patrick Benoist all watched the game from the sidelines.

Brett Upson punted four times, tying a school record for punts in a season with 81.

Ryan Fowler was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, finishing the season 16-for-21.