Vols a win from SEC title game
By: By Beth Rucker, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee Vols are proving to be very resilient.
Vanderbilt led 24-9 in the fourth quarter looking for a second straight victory over instate rival Tennessee on the Vols’ home field. The Vols? Well, their hopes for winning the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and a berth in the league championship were disappearing.
“We already knew what we had to do,” Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell said. “We just had to get our heads out of our butts and then go play football.”
Now the 19th-ranked Vols (8-3, 5-2) have only one game left at Kentucky to play for an improbable SEC championship in a season in which they keep bouncing back whether from embarrassing losses or in this case, a big deficit.
The Vols rallied this time with two touchdown passes by Erik Ainge, a 33-yard field goal by Daniel Lincoln and some big defensive stops to squeak by with a 25-24 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.
They also needed some luck.
The Commodores (5-6, 2-6) still had a last attempt at the win when D.J. Moore returned a kickoff 55 yards. But they had to settle for a 49-yard field goal attempt by Bryant Hahnfeldt with 33 seconds left.
The ball grazed the outside of the left upright, and Vanderbilt’s hopes for a winning streak in Knoxville fell short, allowing the Vols to remain in control of the SEC East.
Georgia beat Kentucky earlier in the day and would have won the SEC East and a spot in the conference title game if the Vols lost. Now a Tennessee win over Kentucky sets the Vols against No. 1 LSU on Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
“This team has a lot of pride,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “It’s had its ups and downs, but it’s stuck together pretty well. You have to admire that.”
Lincoln’s field goal with 2:46 left capped Tennessee’s second-largest fourth-quarter comeback in history. The Vols came from 17 points down in a 30-27 overtime win over LSU in 2005.
Vanderbilt seemingly put the game away on a two-yard TD pass from Mackenzi Adams to George Smith with 9:00 left in the third.
Tennessee’s defense forced the Commodores to go three-and-out on two drives, while Ainge got going. Ainge threw a seven-yard TD pass to Josh Briscoe, followed by a five-yard TD pass to Austin Rogers to bring the Vols within two points with 7:14 left in the game.
A two-point conversion attempt after Rogers’ touchdown failed as Ainge threw incomplete to Quintin Hancock. Vanderbilt again went three-and-out, and a 45-yard punt return by Dennis Rogan set up Lincoln’s field goal.
Ainge finished 29-for-43 with 245 yards and three touchdowns.
The Commodores need a win in their final game against Wake Forest to become bowl eligible.
, though that might not be enough to get Vanderbilt into the postseason for the first time since 1982. The SEC already has more bowl-eligible teams than bowl tie-ins.
Vanderbilt nearly had wins in two other games this season, leading both Georgia and Kentucky in the fourth quarter but ultimately losing to both.
“No team is head-over-heels better than anybody in this conference,” Commodore offensive tackle Chris Williams said. “It’s about who lines up and gets it done on Saturday.”
With sloppy play in the first half, it appeared Tennessee wouldn’t be able to get it done. An extra point attempt by Lincoln was blocked and the kicker also missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Earl Bennett, the SEC’s all-time reception leader, was shaken up late in the second quarter when Tennessee safety Eric Berry tackled him as he leapt to catch a 20-yard pass from Adams. Bennett finished with 26 yards on two receptions.
“Would he have made a difference? I have no idea, but it would have been nice to have him,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.