MEMPHIS — Slowed down offensively and mistake prone for much of three quarters, Vanderbilt regained the momentum and the lead.
Then it was gone — in 12 seconds.
A 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Cincinnati’s Ralph David Albernathy IV turned the momentum for good as Vanderbilt fell 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday in front of 57,103 at Liberty Memorial Stadium.
“It was a dagger,” cornerback Casey Hayward said.
The return might have propelled Cincinnati (10-3) to victory but Vanderbilt’s failure to pounce on opportunities was a consistent issue.
Though they forced two turnovers — both interceptions by Hayward — and blocked a late field goal, the Commodores (6-7) never got into a true rhythm offensively and were less than stellar on special teams.
“We didn’t play well and I think that is the one thing that is hard to swallow,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “If you get beat and you play well, I think you can live with that but we didn’t play well. Too many mistakes on special teams. We didn’t run our offense. I thought our defense was put in tough positions.”
Starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers was just 4-of-14 for 26 yards. After an interception early in the third quarter, Franklin opted to pull Rodgers, who did also take a blow to his hip on the play, and bring in former starter Larry Smith with 10:22 left in the period.
“Did you watch the first half? It wasn't a whole lot of fun,” Franklin said in response to why Rodgers was pulled. “It was ugly. We weren't making plays. We weren't doing the things we were supposed to do. ... That is why you have to have depth. That is why you have to have a bunch of players so that if someone is having a tough time you could be the next guy in. Because of Larry and how he handled that, a lot of guys would go into the tank and be selfish, he was ready for his number to be called and almost had a chance to be the hero.”
Trailing 14-7 since late in the second quarter, Smith marched Vanderbilt down the field on his second possession. He completed three straight passes, his last to Jordan Matthews for 15 yards to the Cincinnati 5-yard line. That set up a tying touchdown by Jerron Seymour at the 3:53 mark.
Two players after the Bearcats responded with a field goal, Smith swung a screen pass to Chris Boyd. Wesley Tate provided a block and Boyd got around traffic down the right sideline untouched for a 68-yard touchdown. It was a career-long touchdown for both Smith and Boyd and it catapulted Vanderbilt in front 21-17 with 14:03 remaining.
That’s when Albernathy broke through a hole, eluded a tackler and dodged kicker Carey Spear, who took out his own teammate Archibald Barnes in the process. It was the first time since Oct. 3, 2008, against Ole Miss that Vanderbilt allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Still, the Commodores had a chance late after Barnes blocked a Tony Miliano field goal with 3:58 left.
Vanderbilt started at its own 32, but on the second play Smith misfired. He threw behind receiver Jordan Matthews, who tipped the ball in the air as Nick Temple picked off. More than minute later, Isaiah Pead punched in a game-clinching 12-yard touchdown run.
“We were real confident. We had momentum on our side and we felt we were going to go down there and punch it in,” said Smith, who was named an outstanding offensive player with 142 yards on 8-of-19 passing. “I just threw it behind him. It is a simple concept that we have installed the first day of spring practice. I made a poor threw and the defense made a play on it.”
Added Franklin: “It was a combination of both — he rushed the throw a little bit and Jordan went a little bit further than he needed to. It didn’t work out well.”
Vanderbilt finished with a dismal 6-of-19 conversions on third down. Cincinnati was worse, though, completing just 4-of-15 and coming up short on its first eight chances. Vanderbilt’s rushing game and 1,000-yard rusher Zac Stacy also were contained. Stacy had just 57 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries as the team finished with only 127 yards on the ground.
But special teams caused more problems for the Commodores.
Long snapper Andrew East had at least three low snaps — the last one causing punter Richard Kent to scramble 17 yards for a first down. The second half took a tumultuous start for Vanderbilt on the opening kickoff. Eric Samuels attempted to field a bouncing kick but the ball bounced off his chest.
The missed chances and ill-timed mistakes cost the Commodores a shot at finishing with a winning record for just the second time in the last 30 years.
“Those plays did not help us [Saturday,” Franklin said. “We talked about this the last couple weeks, ‘You’re going to have to live with [the result] for the next months until the season starts again. That is the thing that is a little disappointing.”