In the beginning, it was just like old times. The Tennessee offense and defense were both tearing it up against its in-state rival, stringing together four excellent series back-to-back-to-back-to-back. As he has done most of this season, Erik Ainge spent the first series on offense dissecting the opposing defense with surgical precision (tossing a 19-yard pass to Austin Rogers here, a 20-yard pass to Lucas Taylor and a 13-yard pass to Josh Briscoe there), balance (handing off to Arian Foster for large chunks of yards at a time, including a 17-yarder on his first carry), and power (converting a QB keeper on fourth and one). The defense was playing just as well, looking more like it did against Arkansas and Georgia than it did against Florida and Alabama. After only four series, Tennessee had piled up 122 yards on offense and held Vanderbilt to 17 yards. Everything was clicking.
A different kind of tail-kickin'
Well, almost everything. After Tennessee's first drive touchdown, Daniel Lincoln kicked the point after attempt so ridiculously low that it hit a flat-footed defensive lineman smack in his bulging neck. Coach Fulmer said after the game that the attempt was so low that "it's a wonder it didn't hit the center in the butt." Maybe Lincoln was bored and was trying to skim it off Josh McNeil's tailbone, but . . . wow. Lincoln's next kick wasn't much better: when the Vols' second drive stalled at the 24, he bounced one off the right upright in the wrong direction. Tennessee was dominating on both sides of the ball but the score wasn't 14-0. It wasn't 10-0 or even 7-0. It was 6-0. The Volunteers had squandered the bulk of opportunity 122 yards of offense normally presents.
A kick in the tail
Squandering opportunity is the enemy of momentum. Tennessee's next drive was three plays long for a whopping eight yards, and Vanderbilt answered with an epic 17-play, 78-yard drive that took 9:02 (!) off the clock. Just like that the Commodores were up 7-6.
Ainge did lead the Vols down the field 60 yards in 14 plays on the team's next series, but they stalled out at the 17. Lincoln actually squeezed one through the uprights without hitting anything else in the process, and the Vols were back on top 9-6, but that was as good as it would get for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Vandy took the next drive 76 yards for another touchdown, regained the lead, and continued to administer the whoopin'. When Tennessee tried to make something of the 42 seconds left in the half, it turned an incomplete outlet pass in enemy territory into a fumbled lateral. What an odd site to see Vandy running into the locker room up 17-9.
Tail Chewin' and Extraction
The locker room at halftime was apparently not a happy place. Reports variously describe Fulmer in fiery terms. Either he "reignited" the team or he "raked them over the coals." Whatever your word choice, the point is that he was hot. But Demonte Bolden and Jerod Mayo were sticking to the tail theme: One or both of them laid into the team and told them that they had "to get [their] heads out of [their] butts and go play football."
Such a manuever is apparently a slow process, because Vanderbilt went right back to work at the top of the third quarter and ripped off a 75-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 24-9. Tennessee could only answer with 19 yards and yet another punt.
Back to tail-kickin'
And then finally, finally, the defense regained a fresh perspective and found some traction by holding Vanderbilt to 13 yards and a 39-yard punt on its second series in the third quarter. The offense, though, was a little more broke, and like many things that aren't working quite right (think the Millennium Falcon), they just needed a good whack.
Enter Vanderbilt's Broderick Stewart. The offense was only flirting with signs of life when Britton Colquitt came in to punt after yet another stalled drive. Colquitt absolutely nailed a 56-yarder, but more importantly, Stewart absolutely nailed Colquitt, and the officials assessed a 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty against him. It was just what Tennessee's offense needed: a taste of momentum and a second chance. This time, they made the most out of it and cut the lead to eight.
The defense then held Vandy to three and out on consecutive series. After one more futile drive, the offense drove 83 yards in ten plays, and Ainge capped things off with a five yard TD pass to Austin Rogers. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Vandy lead was now down to two, 24-22. The clock was ticking, however, and the defense needed to come through. They did, holding the 'Dores to yet another three and out, and Dennis Rogan returned the ensuing punt 45 yards to the 33 yard line. Ainge got the team to the 16, and Lincoln put Tennessee up by one with a 33-yard field goal. The Vols led 25-24 with 2:34 left to play.
But yikes, Vandy returned the next kickoff 55 yards and would have had a touchdown had Dennis Rogan not strung the thing out, fought through a blocker, and forced the return guy out of bounds at the UT 42. Time and space were once again working against the Vols. The Commodores were practically in field goal position already, and they could milk the clock, leaving Tennessee with almost no time left to try any further heroics.
And yikes again, the defense then committed what appeared to be a game-deciding mistake: on third and eight at the 40 (the equivalent of a 58-yard FG attempt), Vandy QB Mackenzi Adams threw incomplete to Bryant Anderson, but Tennessee's DeAngelo Willingham interfered and gave Vandy nine yards (making it the equivalent of a 49-yard FG attempt), a brand new set of downs, and the extra time that goes along with such things. Jerod Mayo, though, taking his own half-time advice, teamed up with fellow linebacker Ryan Karl on the next play to drive Adams' pass to Justin Wheeler back for a four-yard loss. Vandy got the four yards back but no more, and on fourth down the field goal attempt was a none-too-easy 49 yarder.
He just missed. Game over, Vols win, 25-24. To kick butt you sometimes have to chew a little first.
Flash stats after the jump.