Vandy finally bound for bowl
Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008 6:08 pm
By: By JEFFREY MCMURRAY, Associated Press Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Vanderbilt has had three opportunities in recent years to end its lengthy bowl drought by beating Kentucky, a longtime fellow cellar dweller in the Southeastern Conference.
On a cold and drizzly night at Commonwealth Stadium, the third time proved to be the charm.
The Commodores qualified for their first bowl appearance in 26 years Saturday night with a 31-24 victory over the Wildcats, who had foiled their last two attempts at bowling.
“Kentucky has been pretty hard for us,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “A few things here and there have kept us from staying close in those games, but we came out on top this time.”
For the first time ever, Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3) and Kentucky (6-5, 2-5) are poised to appear in the same postseason. The Wildcats had already qualified for their third straight after winning the last two Music City Bowls in Vanderbilt’s home of Nashville.
Kentucky may be returning to the postseason, but the loss likely eliminated some of the more prestigious possible destinations.
“As a team, this is a big bust on us,” UK quarterback Randall Cobb said. “We wanted to go to a big bowl game. We had our opportunity tonight and we didn’t get the job done.”
While the Commodores have solidified their spot above Kentucky in the SEC bowl pecking order, another goal still looms.
Their four conference wins was last achieved in their last postseason appearance in 1982, which culminated in a Hall of Fame Bowl Berth. Win another Saturday against struggling in-state rival Tennessee, and the Commodores will match their franchise record of 5, set in 1935 when the SEC was in its infancy.
“Honestly I don’t think I can describe it right now,” quarterback Chris Nickson said. “The best for me would be, ’Wow.”’
Nickson started at quarterback over the banged-up Mackenzi Adams, who sustained a hip pointer a week earlier against Florida. He completed 15 of 27 passes for a season-high 155 yards and three TDs.
Johnson said Adams probably could have played but that the game plan called for a lot of running by the quarterback against Kentucky and he didn’t want to subject him to further injury. The game plan worked as the Commodores gashed the Wildcats’ defense on the ground and got the critical passing plays when they needed them.
Only Nickson and tailback Jared Hawkins, who rushed for 84 yards and a TD, touched the ball on the Commodores’ first nine plays. But then cornerback and return man D.J. Moore — an unconventional third offensive weapon — got into the act.
Moore had never caught a pass in his career, yet grabbed two in the first quarter, both for nearly identical scores.
In both scoring plays, from 25 and 18 yards, Moore sprinted toward the right pylon on a post pattern as Nickson hit him in stride.
“He’s a playmaker,” Johnson said. “He did everything. For someone to do all that is pretty remarkable.”
Minutes later, Moore returned to defense and picked off Cobb’s pass, setting up another Vanderbilt score.
His second pick was even bigger, coming with 2 minutes left while Cobb was trying to lead the Wildcats to a game-tying TD. Instead, the Commodores were able to run out the clock.
“It feels like a ton of bricks has been taken off our backs after this game,” Moore said.
Nickson got his third TD of the night, the most by a Vanderbilt quarterback in almost a year, with a one-yard flip to Brandon Barden. Barden made the catch with his left hand, then switched it to his right, and an official review confirmed he extended the tip of the ball just past the goal line before his knee touched the ground.
Moore did make one big mistake — a third-quarter fumble that allowed the Wildcats to chip away at the lead with a 3-yard TD run by Tony Dixon.
Kentucky had its chances, but every bounce seemed to go Vanderbilt’s way. The Commodores muffed both the opening kick and a subsequent Kentucky punt, recovering both, and Nickson also had a fumble but retained possession.
Kentucky penalties gave Vanderbilt’s offense plenty of extra opportunities, even in rare instances when it stalled. The Wildcats were called three times for roughing the punter and once for roughing the passer.
Those contributed to an extremely lopsided time of possession, especially early. After the Commodores took a 21-7 lead late in the first half, they had controlled the ball for nearly 24 minutes, compared to 3 minutes for the Wildcats.
Kentucky didn’t get a first down until less than two minutes before halftime, and that involved trickery — a fake that punter Tim Masthay ran for 17 yards. Even that couldn’t spark the offense as Kentucky turned it over on downs after getting a second chance.
“I wish I had answers for you,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said afterward. “If I had answers, we wouldn’t have started that way, and it’s my job to have answers. So put it on my lap.”
Vanderbilt added a 39-yard field goal from Bryant Hahnfeldt to stretch the halftime lead to 24-7.
David Jones picked up the ball off the ground after a blocked field goal and ran 57 yards for Kentucky’s first points. The Wildcats’ previous blocked field goal return for a score came more than three years earlier, also against the Commodores.
Kentucky cut the Commodores’ lead to 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter on Cobb’s keeper from 10 yards out, set up by an acrobatic 33-yard reception from E.J. Adams. The Wildcats seemed to regain momentum, but it was halted on the next drive by Moore’s interception.
“We are all pretty down right now,” Jones said. “I will give a lot of credit to Vanderbilt because they came in and wanted the game more than we did.”