The Volunteers mounted the second-largest fourth-quarter comeback in program history, rallying to defeat a determined Vanderbilt squad 25-24.
The victory puts the No. 19 Vols one win away from a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference Championship in Atlanta. They also clinched the first undefeated season at Neyland Stadium since 1999. Add in the historical importance of the comeback, the circumstances of it being senior day in Knoxville and many players got emotional.
“I came in with the ’04 class,” said tailback Arian Foster, a redshirt junior who rushed for 106 yards. “When we were in the locker room singing, it got to me again. We’re like brothers here, you know?”
Tennessee (8-3, 5-2) came all the way back from a 24-9 deficit, taking the lead on Daniel Lincoln’s 33-yard field goal with 2:46 left in the game before surviving a last-minute Vanderbilt drive that ended when Bryan Hahnfeldt’s 49-yarder bonked off the upright.
“A lesser team would have bagged it, possibly,” UT coach Phillip Fulmer said.
In the aftermath, at least one Commodore saw the Vols as the lesser squad.
“We are better than Tennessee,” Vanderbilt defensive tackle Gabe Hall said. “Bottom line, we smacked them in the mouth every single play. You can watch the tape. They know it. They know they escaped.”
Lincoln helped the Vols dodge defeat, but he wasn’t perfect Saturday. He had an extra point blocked and a field goal try in the first quarter hit the right upright. They were rare blips for Lincoln, who has been almost automatic in his first season as UT’s place kicker.
Tennessee nearly lost despite outgaining Vanderbilt 350 yards to 270. Erik Ainge struggled mightily through three quarters.
Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-6) led 17-9 at the break thanks to a 10-point flourish in the final minute of the half. With 47 seconds left, Mackenzi Adams hit tailback Jeff Jennings on a 19-yard TD pass. On the next play from scrimmage, Ainge threw an errant screen pass to Chris Brown. It was ruled a lateral, Vandy pounced on it and Hahnfeldt tacked on a 33-yard field goal with six ticks remaining.
Vandy put together its best possession of the game to open the second half — without star receiver Earl Bennett, who missed almost the whole second half with a lower back injury. Adams’ 2-yard pass to George Smith capped a 11-play drive that lasted six minutes.
The Vols got going in the second half, and a Vanderbilt miscue provided the catalyst. A UT drive stalled at midfield and resulted in a punt, but Commodore Broderick Stewart was called for roughing punter Britton Colquitt. Ainge hit Josh Briscoe for a 7-yard TD on the second play of the fourth period, and the momentum swung in UT’s favor.
While the Vol defense forced three straight three-and-outs, Ainge and Austin Rogers hooked up on a 5-yard scoring strike with 7:14 left. The conversion pass from Ainge to Quintin Hancock failed, but it didn’t alter Lincoln’s approach.
“We still needed points to win the game,” he noted.
Lincoln got his chance, and soon. After Vandy’s third three-and-out, Dennis Rogan broke an electrifying 45-yard punt return to the Commodores’ 33. That set the stage for Lincoln, who has leapt from anonymity to the greatest season by a freshman kicker in UT history.
“I came in and felt like a lot of cards had been stacked against me since I started playing sports when I was younger,” said Lincoln. “As hard as Coach Fulmer’s been on me, and then I’ve got to beat Britton out. It took him getting hurt just for me to even be given a fair shot in my opinion. It’s just fitting.”
A 55-yard kickoff return by Vandy’s D.J. Moore gave the Commodores one last hope, and a controversial pass interference call on Jonathan Hefney resuscitated it. In the end, though, Hahnfeldt’s kick wasn’t true.
“Thinking about it now, I was just telling somebody in the locker room, I don’t want to know what that feels like,” Lincoln said.
He still hasn’t. And because of it, the Vols remain on track for Atlanta.