KNOXVILLE – All last week, Vanderbilt’s players and coaches held tight to the notion that a victory Saturday over the University of Tennessee would help offset the previous 11 weeks of mostly pain and frustration.
Any real opportunity for such redemption slipped away in a manner of seconds.
The Commodores missed a chance to tie the score before the end of the first half when they failed to convert a fourth down from the UT 38 with 35 seconds to go. Rather than run off the remaining time the Volunteers opened up the offense and opened up the largest lead of the contest to that point.
VU, which had some memorable moments throughout the game, got no closer than eight points throughout the second half and fell 31-16 in the finale of a largely forgettable fall before 100,124 at Neyland Stadium. The Commodores ended with eight straight defeats and – for the first time since 2002 – no victories in Southeastern Conference play.
“It’s kind of the story of our season – playing all right but not really getting it done,” senior quarterback Mackenzi Adams said. “It was little mistakes here and there that kind of killed us. It didn’t go how we wanted it to go, but it wasn’t a completely bad season, I guess.”
Vanderbilt trailed 17-10 when Johnson elected to try and move the chains in the final minute of the half.
After John Cole failed to hold on to Adams’ offering, the Volunteers went 61 yards in four plays for a touchdown and a 24-10 margin. Tight end Luke Stocker caught passes on the final two snaps, the second of them a 16-yard reception for the score.
“We weren't counting on a whole lot of time to get down there (in UT territory), coach Bobby Johnson said. “So we felt like we wanted to go for it on fourth down. In hindsight, we probably would have been better to punt it down there and go into the half down 17-10.
“We thought we could make it, and we thought we could stop them if we didn't make it. They did a great job on that drive.”
The defense actually played much better after that and, in fact, did not allow a point after halftime. UT’s final score came when defensive end Wes Brown returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown with three seconds to go.
The Volunteers did rush for 201 yards, 171 of them by senior running back Montario Hardesty (a career-high), but they threw one interception, failed to convert twice on fourth down and punted on two other times on their five offensive possessions of the second half.
Vanderbilt turned Jamie Graham’s interception into a field goal with 6:37 to play in the second quarter. Another three points came after UT punted with 5:54 to go in the contest.
“We were very poor in the second half offensively, and part of that was partly my fault getting conservative and taking the ball away from the quarterback,” UT coach Lane Kiffin said. “The main thing is that we won.”
The victory guaranteed that the Volunteers will return to a bowl game this season after having stayed home in 2008.
The Commodores were forced back into a rebuilding posture less than a year after they recorded just their second bowl victory ever.
“This definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” linebacker Chris Marve said. “We knew where we wanted to be at the start of the season. This is definitely motivation and fuel for the fire for this offseason to train hard and not get complacent.”
• Freshman running back Warren Norman broke Herschel Walker’s SEC freshman record and Corey Harris’ all-time Vanderbilt record for total yards in a season.
His 152 (73 rushing, 61 on kickoff returns and 18 receiving) gave him 1,941. Walker had 1,805 as a freshman in 1980, and Harris had 1,827 in 1991.
"I'd heard a lot about Hershel Walker,” Norman, a Georgia native, said. “He was one of the greatest running backs to play college football. It doesn't mean too much to me because I'm not about breaking records. It's an honor, though, just being mentioned with Hershel Walker. That's pretty cool.”
Norman finished the season with 783 rushing yards, 15 shy of Kwane Doster’s Vanderbilt freshman record. He also finished the season with 1,050 kickoff return yards, which made him the first SEC player ever to top 1,000 in that regard.
• It seemed somehow fitting that two of the three captains Vanderbilt sent out for the pre-game coin toss – linebacker Patrick Benoist and safety Ryan Hamilton –were in sweat pants and unavailable to play.
Among those who were added to the ranks of VU’s injured this week were Benoist (concussion) and wide receiver Alex Washington (thigh), neither of whom played.
Only five VU players started all 12 games this season.
• Kicker Ryan Fowler was three-for-three on field goals (31, 27 and 32 yards) and tied the VU single-season record of 16 set by Ricky Anderson in 1984. Fowler, a redshirt-freshman, was 14-for-19 for the season and made his final eight attempts.