Opportunity knocked and knocked and knocked.
Vanderbilt just didn’t open the door.
It was the same old song for the Commodores, who failed to do much offensively, even though they had chances. The inability to take advantage doomed them again in a 24-10 loss to Tennessee on Saturday in front of 37,017 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“We had our chances and didn’t capitalize – that is where we ended up,” Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said. “It is very frustrating. They work as hard they can. Sometimes we get out-athleted, sometimes we don’t throw it, sometimes we miss an assignment. It is all part of the game.”
Vanderbilt (2-9, 1-7 SEC) trailed just 14-3 at halftime and had a great chance to cut into the lead when Tennessee (5-6, 2-5) fumbled a punt return fewer than two minutes into the third quarter.
Quarterback Larry Smith then was bailed out on the second play of the drive. Tennessee’s Gerald Williams was sitting on Smith’s pass in the flat to Eric Samuels. Smith didn’t see Williams and the defensive tackle jumped the route, intercepted the pass and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown.
The Volunteers, however, were called for a roughing the passer penalty and gave Vanderbilt a first down. The Commodores reached the Tennessee 8 but couldn’t get in the end zone. Instead, they settled for a 25-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Fowler but the kicked missed wide left.
After Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray threw an interception on the next drive, Fowler had a chance to redeem himself with a 45-yard field goal. But the kick was blocked and recovered by Williams.
“It really is demoralizing,” Caldwell said of the kicking woes. “You know no one wants to miss it but it’s something we do every day and put them in those situations. You hope you hit it but it’s part of the game. Some people make them and some don’t.”
Tennessee tacked on a field foal with 12:57 left in the game for a 17-3 lead. The Commodores struggled to get near the end zone with Smith in so they brought in Jared Funk in the fourth quarter. The move looked like it was going to pay off as Funk threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews with more than six minutes left. But a penalty negated the score as the officials said Matthews stepped out of bounds. By rule, if a receiver steps out of bounds on his own, he cannot be the first player to touch the ball when he comes back into play.
“I could have sworn that boy got forced out of bounds. Did ya’ll see that? What was the deal?” Caldwell asked reporters afterwards.
One reporter responded that it looked he was pushed out of bounds and Caldwell started laughing.
“I have to laugh to keep from crying,” he said.
Two plays later, Funk was intercepted by Janzen Jackson, who returned the ball to Vanderbilt’s 44-yard line.
Funk and Matthews did hook up for a 21-yard touchdown with 2:33 to go. But it was too little, too late as Tennessee recovered Vanderbilt’s onside kick. Volunteers running back Tauren Poole broke off a 28-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-two with 1:22 to go to seal the victory.
“We made enough mistakes (Saturday) to last us for a season,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “I knew this was going to be a tough game. Give Vanderbilt a lot of credit. They brought it for 60 minutes and we really struggled. We had a lot of opportunities to put the game away and we didn't capitalize.”
Tennessee led 14-0 midway through the second quarter thanks to touchdown passes of 15 and 20 yards from Bray.
Vanderbilt ran the last 4:55 off the clock in the first half, using 17 plays to get to the Tennessee 14-yard line. After Jackson broke up a pass by Smith that was intended for Trey Herndon at the 1-yard line, the Commodores settled for a 31-yard field goal from Fowler as time expired.
“Frustrating, not being able to convert,” Smith said. “We struggled with that all year, as you saw out there tonight.”
Smith finished with just 76 yards on 11-of-27 passing and one interception. Funk was a little better, going 9-for-14 and passing for 146 yards with the one interception.
Neither could guide Vanderbilt to a big win though. It was Vanderbilt’s fifth straight loss to Tennessee and 27th in the last 28 years.
“We probably should have beaten them about three times in our tenure here and let them off the hook,” Caldwell, who has been at Vanderbilt since 2002, said.
Yep, with apologies to the Four Tops, it was the same old song. Just a different verse.
• Vanderbilt has lost 22 straight games when its opponent has scored first. The last time the Commodores bounced back and picked up a victory after giving up the game’s first points was on Oct. 4, 2008. Vanderbilt rallied from 13 down to knock off then-No. 13 Auburn 14-13.
• Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr left midway through the first quarter with an elbow sprain. His status for next week’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest is uncertain.
• With the win, Tennessee still has a chance to reach a bowl. The Volunteers will be bowl eligible if they beat Kentucky in Knoxville next weekend. Tennessee has won 25 straight against the Wildcats.
Representatives from both the Liberty Bowl, which is held in Memphis, and the Music City Bowl were in attendance on Saturday.