(This story has been updated)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No bowl for Tennessee.
Trying to erase three successive losing seasons, Tennessee let a victory slip away when a reversed fourth-down spot gave Vanderbilt a first down and ended the Vols’ premature celebration – and back-up quarterback Patton Robinette scored on a 5-yard run three plays later for a 14-10 victory on a frigid night at Neyland Stadium.
After a Michael Palardy punt pinned the Commodores (7-4, 4-4) at their own 8, Vandy methodically drove to the Tennessee 34 and faced a fourth-and-inches. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels plunged into the line and was smothered by a mass of humanity. When the officials spotted the ball it was short of the first down.
However, Vandy coach James Franklin challenged the spot, it was reviewed and review official Ben Oldham reversed the on-field ruling and the Commodores had new life.
“No comment on the officials today,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “That pretty much summarizes it.”
Said Franklin, “We thought we had the first down. After that it’s out of our hands.”
A 25-yard pass from Carta-Samuels to stud receiver Jordan Matthews moved the Commodores to the Vols’ 8.
Robinette faked a jump pass, rolled to his right and escaped a Tennessee defender on the perimeter to score untouched with 16 seconds on the clock.
“This is huge,” said Robinette, who is from Maryville, about 20 miles from the Tennessee campus. “That makes it even sweeter.”
It was a bitter pill to swallow for defensive tackle Daniel Hood, who said, “We went from the highest high to the lowest low.”
Tennessee (4-7, 1-6) gained enough yardage to set up one last desperation pass from Josh Dobbs to the end zone, but the fall was knocked away by a host of Vandy defenders to preserve the victory, the Commodores’ second straight in the series.
This is Vandy’s first two-game winning streak against the Vols since 1925-26 – the last season for coach M.B. Banks and first for a guy named Gen. Robert R. Neyland. Vandy was the only team to beat Neyland’s Vols that season and the Commodores scored 20 of the 34 points UT gave up all season.
The late William "Bill" Spears, a former three-sport start at The McCallie School in Chattanooga, played on the 1925-26 Vanderbilt teams. Spears, who played football, baseball and ran track for the Blue Tornado, earned a Bachelor's degree in 1928 and a Law degree in 1931 and was a member of the Spears, Moore, Rebman and Williams law firm.
Spears lived on Lookout Mountain.
“What’s so special about this team,” Franklin said, “is that it knows how to win. Over the last three years, we’ve created a culture that the players expect to win and they find ways to win.”
With a win the Vols could have become bowl eligible by beating Kentucky next week in Lexington. But that game was rendered pretty much meaningless with Saturday’s loss before 97,223 shivering fans.
Tennessee is 20-28 overall and 6-25 in the conference from 2010 to 11 games deep into this season and the program has seen 37 coaches come and go.
“But we’re extremely excited about the future,” said Dobbs, a true freshman with loads of optimism. “We just have to keep moving forward and continue to grow.”
First, Tennessee has to live with its fourth consecutive losing season, knowing the best mark it can produce the third straight 5-7 and they have to knock off the Wildcats to do that.
The loss immediately reminded the Vols and their fans of similar losses snatched from victory against LSU in in 2010 and North Carolina in the Music City Bowl game that same year.
Palardy’s 32-yard field goal in the third quarter – it hit the left upright and bounced through – gave the Vols a 10-7 lead, only their second scoreboard advantage since South Carolina on Oct. 19. Tennessee led Auburn, 7-0, before falling to the Tigers, 55-23.
Aided by a 71-yard kickoff return, the Commodores drove to the Vols’ 16, but Robinette fumbled when tackled by Devaun Swafford – the freshman out of Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School – and former Ooltewah High standout Jacques Smith recovered the ball to thwart the scoring opportunity.
It was Tennessee’s sixth red-zone turnover of the season, best in the SEC.
The Vols tried various ways to win, including a fake field goal that backfired when Palardy’s pass was intercepted by Paris Head, one of two picks by the redshirt freshman cornerback – the Commodores had three on the night.
Tennessee gave Vandy another chance midway through the fourth quarter. Dobbs was sacked for a 16-yard loss back to the Vols’ 1. A poor 27-yard punt by Palardy out of the end zone gave the Commodores possession at Tennessee’s 29.
The Vols’ stout-hearted defense forced a 42-yard field-goal try by Carey Spear and it woefully short.
Carta-Samuels finished with 181 yards passing as he completed 21 of 27 passes. Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions, snagged 13 receptions for 133 yards. Matthews has 246 career catches to break the record of former Vandy star Earl Bennett, who caught 236 passes from 2005-07. Matthews also holds the record for career receiving yards (3,491).
“Honestly, I didn’t even think about it,” said Matthews, referring to his statistical success with the Commodores. “We just always go in thinking about playing. Coach (Franklin) always says if you go in and work hard and play the game and go hard 100 percent every single play, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself.”
Tennessee cornerback Justin Coleman probably has seen enough of Matthews.
“He’s a great competitor and he’s great at catching the ball,” Coleman said. “He doesn’t drop too many.”
Dobbs passed for just 53 yards – the Vols’ season low – and connected on 11 of 19 attempts with two interceptions in a sometimes ragged performance. Most of Tennessee’s offense resulted from 184 rushing yards, and Rajion Neal had 95 on 22 carries with a touchdown.
Dobbs had a touchdown called back by a block-in-the-back penalty early in the fourth quarter that would have given the Vols a 17-7 lead.
“I heard it was a block-in-the-back,” Dobbs said. “I didn’t see it.”
The long-time rivals started out wobbly.
Trying to pull the Vols offside on a fourth-down play, Vandy flinched and wound up punting.
Dobbs threw an interception – a bad throw that followed an even worse decision to throw into tight coverage.
The Commodores gained some balance on their second possession and drove 61 yards in 11 plays for the game’s first score – Jerron Seymour’s 4-yard run and Vandy was up 7-0.
Vols strong safety Brian Randolph picked off a Carta-Samuels pass and a 41-yard return set Tennessee up at the Commodores’ 12 after an unsportsmanlike penalty on Joe Townsend. It was Randolph’s fourth pick of the season, the first that didn’t occur in the end zone.
The opportunity quickly went down the drain and Vandy’s Adam Butler blocked Palardy’s 33-yard field-goal attempt with 3:11 left in the first quarter. It was the first block since Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree got one in 2011.
Tennessee was not looking so good and Matthews already had become the SEC’s all-time receptions leader.
The Vols’ defense was playing aggressive and Vandy running back Brian Kimbrow lost 3 yards and the ball, with linebacker A.J. Johnson falling on the football. Johnson, who had 11 first-half tackles, was penalized for spinning the ball on the turf, but the Vols were back in the business of offense at their own 47.
After picking up two first downs, the second coming at Vandy’s 27, Neal gained 11 yards. Neal fumbled at the end of the play, but Jacob Carter, playing for injured Marquez North recovered the ball.
Dobbs then kept the ball for another 11-yard gain to the 5.
On the next play Neal zipped into the checkerboard end zone for his 11th career rushing touchdown, capping a seven-play, 53-yard scoring drive, on the first play of the second quarter.
Later Dobbs threw his second interception – Head got this one, too – and the Commodores began a promising march toward the lead.
On third-and-seven from the Vols’ 37, Carta-Samuels hit Matthews on a crossing route and the league’s top receiver sprinted inside the 5. When tackled by linebacker Randolph, Matthews coughed up the ball and Randolph, Tennessee’s Johnny-on-the-spot on this cold night, smothered it at the 1.
Vanderbilt 7 0 0 7 – 14
Tennessee 0 7 3 0 – 10
VU – Jerron Seymour 4 run (Taylor Hudson kick), 6:09
UT – Rajion Neal 5 run (Palardy kick), 14:56
UT – FG Palardy 32, 9:06
VU – Patton Robinette 5 run (Spear kick), 0:16
ATT – 97,223
First Downs 15 18
Rushes-Yards 31-90 45-184
Passing Yards 195 53
Total Yards 62-285 65-237
Com.-Att.-Int. 24-31-1 11-20-3
Fumbles-Lost 3-3 3-0
Punts.-Avg. 5-37.8 5-37.0
Penalties-Yds. 7-74 5-61
RUSHING — Vanderbilt: Wesley Tate 10-43, Patton Robinette 8-33, Austyn Carta-Samuels 5-10, Jerron Seymour 5-9, Brian Kimbrow 2-minus 1, Jordan Matthews 1-minus 4; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 22-95, Marlin Lane 9-53, Josh Dobbs 11-23, Alton Howard 2-15.
PASSING — Vanderbilt: Carta-Samuels 21-27-1-181, Robinette 3-4-0-14; Tennessee: Dobbs 11-19-2-53, Michael Palardy 0-1-1-0.
RECEIVING — Vanderbilt: Matthews 13-133, Tate 5-9, Jonathan Krause 3-43, Seymour 3-10; Tennessee: Howard 2-23, Jacob Carter 1-14, Lane 1-9, Jason Croom 1-3, Brendan Downs 1-3, Marquez North 1-2, Neal 4-minus 1.
TACKLES (UA-A-TOT) – Vanderbilt: Chase Garnham 7-3-10, Javon Marshall 5-2-7, Walker May 4-2-6; Tennessee: A.J. Johnson 8-5-13, Justin Coleman 7-1-8, Jacques Smith 4-2-6, Davuan Swafford 4-2-6.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)