NASHVILLE — Vanderbilt ended years of frustration at the hands of their in-state rival Tennessee with one of its best victories in decades.
Making their celebration even sweeter?
The Commodores also ensured Tennessee’s third straight losing season, putting Volunteers’ coach Derek Dooley’s job status in further jeopardy with a 41-18 victory Saturday night.
Andre Hal intercepted two passes and Jordan Rodgers threw for two touchdowns as Vanderbilt (7-4, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) routed Tennessee (4-7, 0-7) for the Commodores’ fifth straight victory, clinching their first winning record in the regular season since 1982.
“I’d like to start by saying the one thing that Vanderbilt always does is focus on being 1-0 this week,” Commodores coach James Franklin said in a play on Dooley’s proclamation last year that Tennessee “always” beats Vanderbilt. “I know how much this means to the fans. I know how much this means to our alumni.”
In-state rival Tennessee had won 34 of the past 36 games in this series coming into this game. The Commodores also snapped a 14-game skid against Tennessee at home with their first win in Nashville since 1982 and the most points they’ve scored against the Vols since a 51-7 win in 1923.
It’s why Franklin sent his Commodores back onto the field to celebrate with fans who stuck around to enjoy the moment in what he called a building program with a long way to go.
“This is what we all envisioned when we came here, that we could build something special here at Vanderbilt right here in Nashville. We are Nashville’s team,” Franklin said.
Vanderbilt also had its biggest margin of victory over Tennessee since a 26-0 win in 1954 in a game the Commodores were held to a pair of field goals by Carey Spear after having first-and-goal at the Volunteers’ 5 and closer. The Commodores also won five SEC games for the first time since 1935.
“I think it is a testament to them staying with us through the tough times,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had a lot of tough times. It has been since ‘82 since we beat Tennessee here. They’ve been waiting a long time for that. So we wanted to make sure to celebrate with them and honor them.”
The Vols haven’t had three straight losing seasons since 1909-11. They also will miss out on a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1976-1978. Dooley was at a loss after the game when asked about his job security.
“That’s not my call,” Dooley said. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
Vanderbilt led 13-10 at halftime and took control with a dominant third quarter, scoring 21 consecutive points in a stretch where the Commodores outgained Tennessee 175-13.
Receiver Jordan Matthews scored on a 47-yard end around — his first career rushing TD — running back Wesley Tate tossed a jump pass to Kris Kentera for a 3-yard TD and Zac Stacy became Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring leader with his 27th career TD on a 10-yard run for a 34-10 lead with 1:53 left.
Stacy celebrated briefly alone at midfield after his final home game, calling it a bittersweet moment.
“We treated this game like it was any other game,” Stacy said. “It just feels a whole lot better it being Tennessee.”
Rodgers finished 13 of 26 for 245 yards, and Matthews caught seven passes for 115 yards, including a 71-yard TD.
Vanderbilt came in with a scoring defense ranked 16th in the nation, giving up just 18 points a game. The Commodores got two rare sacks against Tennessee, and a unit that had four interceptions all season and none against an SEC opponent since the season opener against South Carolina got three that Vanderbilt turned into 17 points.
“Give Vanderbilt credit,” Dooley said. “They’re playing really good, and we’re not.”
This game was expected to be a shootout with Tennessee averaging 37.9 points per game and Tyler Bray threatening Peyton Manning’s single-season passing record. Bray had been nearly perfect in the last three games, throwing for 1,302 yards with 13 TDs and only one interception.
Vanderbilt outgained Tennessee 442-303 in total offense, and Bray wound up benched before returning for his worst game this season.
Bray said the Vols had a bad night with “all the stuff that’s going on.”
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” Bray said. “Vandy came out and handed it to us tonight. I mean they played well, and we just didn’t.”
Bray stared at the Vandy sideline after he threw his lone TD, a 14-yarder to Nashville native Zach Rogers in the second quarter. Bray was intercepted by Johnell Thomas off a tipped pass on the next drive, and Dooley benched the junior with Bray 6 of 17 for 79 yards in the half. Bray finished 11 of 29 for a season-low 103 yards passing.
Sophomore Justin Worley did little better for Tennessee after entering with only 12 pass attempts for 83 yards with an interception this season.
Hal intercepted a Worley pass intended for Cordarrelle Patterson and ran it 36 yards to the Tennessee 17. Rodgers put Vanderbilt up 13-7 with an 11-yard TD pass to Chris Boyd, who pulled the ball in before stepping out of the back of the end zone.
Worley did move the Vols 51 yards to set up a 28-yard field goal by Michael Palardy just before halftime to pull within 13-10 of Vanderbilt.
Dooley put Bray back in for the third quarter, and the Vols went three-and-out. Vanderbilt took over from there, and Tennessee’s lone highlight was an 81-yard punt return by Patterson in the fourth quarter after the game’s outcome was long decided.