The best and worst of Tennessee's 2009 season were on display at different points tonight, but in the end the Vols did just enough good to keep Vanderbilt at bay, and Wes Brown put the nail in the Commodores' coffin.
Tennessee's 31-16 win over their in-state rivals makes the Vols bowl eligible, a guaranteed improvement over last year and a nice start for Lane Kiffin. It will get even nicer if the Vols can win at Kentucky next week, with the SEC's bowl outlook cloudy but still leaving plenty of solid options for a 7-5 Tennessee team.
On senior day, Tennessee's seniors carried the load on both sides of the ball. The Vol defense also featured plenty of brand new faces, as a unit decimated by injuries at linebacker and still struggling to find itself without Janzen Jackson struggled at times. But Monte Kiffin's bend-but-don't-break style continued to pay off, as the Vols kept Vandy out of the end zone at every crucial juncture in the second half.
We'll take any win we can get this season, even when we don't play quite as well as we'd like against Vandy. The ups and downs of tonight's game:
- Jonathan Crompton didn't put on his Peyton Manning mask this week, but was more than fine in his final Neyland Stadium performance: 20 of 34, 221 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT that wasn't his fault. Crompton's decision making continues to impress in comparison to where it was in September (and all of last year), and his ability to put the ball exactly where it has to be also led to...
- Luke Stocker's incredible touchdown catch, one of five on the night for Stocker to lead the team. Seriously, quit throwing to this guy, because the NFL is going to notice.
- Montario Hardesty, on senior day, finally got the sort of workload we thought he'd see all season, and delivered the expected results: career highs with 32 carries for 171 yards. Hardesty now has 1125 yards on the season, and yes, it's a longshot, but if he does that again against Kentucky and in the bowl game, he'll give Travis Stephens' single season rushing record a run for its money. Hardesty needs 339 yards in the final two games...and even if he doesn't get there, he's had a fantastic season.
- The 4th quarter hit by Stephaun Raines and Shane Reveiz, two guys who've had to step in to fill holes in Tennessee's defense. Their one-two shot in the red zone drew "OOOOOOOHHHH"s from the crowd and helped hold Vanderbilt to a field goal on the drive.
- Ole Miss flashbacks on defense. The Vols didn't break, but did bend just enough to make you worry. Vanderbilt may not have had the offensive weapons to fully exploit Tennessee's defense (Warren Norman gets 91 yards of offense), but Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb are putting on a show in Athens right now. If you just look at the box score, the numbers don't show a huge cause for concern - Vols outgained Vandy 422-297 - but there were enough plays where the Commodores had guys running free and breaking tackles against our banged up defense that you have to be concerned about UK.
- Season-long flashbacks on special teams. Hats off to Devin Mathis for literally coming out of nowhere and making his first field goal. But when the Vols would rather go for a first down (that they wouldn't get) than kick a 40 yard field goal to ice the game, you know we've got problems. The Vols went for it three times on fourth down instead of kicking field goals, and only converted once. When the Vols called a fake punt, a penalty negated it. When Vandy punted, the Vols got called for the incredibly rare snapper interference penalty, and I'll add my name to the list of people who've never, ever seen that called in a game before. Which leads us to:
- Penalties. Of Tennessee's 9 penalties for 95 yards - remember when we saw the fewest flags in the conference? - some were deserved. We got one replay of that snapper interference call, but I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that one - it's so rare, I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to be looking for. But two pass interference calls might cause Lane Kiffin to break out his checkbook in the next 48 hours: one in the first half was completely phantom on Rico McCoy, who made absolutely zero contact and was, in fact, a full step behind the intended target when the ref threw the flag. The second was potentially much more damaging, negating Dennis Rogan's end zone interception that would've sealed it with the Vols up 24-13 late, which again looked to be completely phantom on a slant route. I've never seen such inaccuracy on two pass interference calls in a single game - this wasn't even "well there was contact, but...". There was no contact, twice. And if Vanderbilt was more capable of taking advantage, it could've really cost the Vols. Instead, Vandy got only a field goal, the Vols almost ran out the clock, and then...
- Wes Brown is a senior with bad knees, and therefore no real football future. We've been hearing the "this guy can barely practice" line since fall camp. But playing next to senior Dan Williams (who also had a big night tonight), Brown picked up the rare DT interception last week at Ole Miss, then topped himself with the game-sealing DT pick six tonight, carrying a Commodore the final ten yards for the end zone. Bonus points for Lane Kiffin decking Jonathan Crompton during the sideline celebration.
It's hard to feel great about beating Vanderbilt, and though you'd better take seriously a Kentucky team that's going to win in Athens tonight, it'll be hard to feel great about beating Kentucky for the 25th year in a row. But while beating the Cats in Lexington will be no small task, doing so should send Tennessee to a bowl game where they'd play a bigtime opponent, giving this team one more chance to win a big one and end the season on a very high note. It may not have been pretty on every play tonight, and the Vols may have serious defensive depth issues...but Tennessee got the job done tonight, surviving Vandy and advancing to postseason play. What's become a big test at Kentucky comes next, with a chance to make a good bowl now fully back on the table.