For all the attention Tennessee’s prolific offense received, Vanderbilt felt equal amounts of slight and disrespect.
It wasn’t the first time the Commodores have felt overlooked.
“It’s Vanderbilt. They’re always disrespecting us,” cornerback Andre Hal said. “But we’re changing that now. We’re turning it around.”
Hal intercepted two passes as Vanderbilt smothered the Vols in a monumental 41-18 victory on Saturday night. The Commodores (7-4, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) locked up their first winning regular season since 1982 – also the last time they defeated Tennessee in Nashville.
The defense played a huge role, forcing three turnovers – all interceptions – which turned into 17 points. Vanderbilt also held the Vols to just 303 yards. Only Alabama has held UT to fewer total yards (282). Tennessee entered the game averaging 37.9 points.
“They haven’t been held to a game like that in a while,” quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “The defense came to play.”
Vanderbilt amped up the pressure, swarming quarterbacks Tyler Bray and Justin Worley and the Vols’ backfield. The Commodores collected seven tackles for loss, two sacks and seven pass breakups – two coming from defensive linemen.
“I think he was just trying to get rid of the ball,” linebacker Chase Garnham said of Bray. “He didn't want to get sacked. Some of his throws were really hurried and I think that helped us.”
Bray definitely looked out of sync, passing for a season-low 103 yards. He completed 11 of 29 passes, including one that soared 14 yards to Zach Rogers for a touchdown. That gave Tennessee a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter and cameras caught Bray staring down the Vanderbilt sideline after the score.
The defense responded with blitzes and turnovers to enjoy the last laugh.
On Bray’s first pass since the touchdown, defensive tackle Rob Lohr charged in and deflected the ball high into the air and into the hands of defensive end Johnell Thomas for his first career interception. Vanderbilt hadn’t intercepted a pass in an SEC game since the season opener against South Carolina.
Eventually the now-fired Derek Dooley pulled Bray. His temporary replacement, Justin Worley, didn’t do much better. He wasn’t on the same page with his receiver and Hal took advantage, catching his second interception of the season and returning it 36 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown late in the first half.
Bray came back in the second half and Hal stared down his pass intended for Cordarrelle Patterson, who turned the wrong direction on the route.
Two plays later, Wesley Tate threw a 3-yard touchdown to Kris Kentera for a 27-10 lead as the route was officially on.
“As an offense that’s huge any time you see the defense playing like that and get a huge momentum play like that,” Rodgers said. “We smell blood in the water. We’re ready to attack.”
The pass defense had been stellar most of the season, ranking in the top 10 in the country. The Commodores entered Saturday’s game allowing just 177 passing yards. But last week they looked plenty vulnerable as Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace shred them for 403 passing yards.
Against Tennessee, they returned to the “fundamentals,” Garnham said. The linebackers focused on dropping back for the pass and not getting sucked up by the run, which in turn made it harder for the Vols to get open in space. As a result, highly touted wideouts Patterson and Justin Hunter were quiet with a combined eight catches for 91 yards and zero touchdowns.
In the end, Hal and the Commodores were the ones demanding warranted respect.
“They are pretty good receivers,” Hal said. “But I think I’m a good cornerback. I think Trey Wilson is a good cornerback. We’ll go up against anybody in the country. Whoever wants it, they can come get it.”