In a game that was all but over, Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy wouldn’t be denied.
Carrying at least three or four Kentucky defenders on his back and with his teammates pushing him forward, Stacy churned his way to his third and final touchdown. The 18-yard score midway through the fourth quarter just added to the celebratory tone of Vanderbilt’s 38-8 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday in front of 33,718 on senior day at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The determined run, however, summed up the 2011 season for resilient Vanderbilt. After consecutive 2-10 seasons, the Commodores (5-5, 2-5 SEC) are just one win away from reaching a bowl for the second time in four seasons -- and just the second in the last 29 years. They can accomplish the feat over the final two weeks – either at Tennessee or at Wake Forest.
“I was just thinking, ‘What determination this team has,’” senior offensive lineman Kyle Fischer said. “[Stacy] could have gone down but ... that was just the resiliency of this team, too, showing that we never quit no matter what. If we are up or down, we never give up. We are always fighting.”
Vanderbilt snapped a five-game league losing streak by matching its largest margin of victory in an SEC game since 1971. The Commodores barely missed their first league shutout since 1968.
Kentucky was 0-of-12 on third downs and had only nine first downs. The Wildcats (4-6, 1-5) rushed for only 32 yards. Freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith, who was making his second start, was sacked four times. He had just 22 passing yards at halftime, finishing with 179, and his lone touchdown pass, a 22-yarder, came with the Wildcats down 31-0 late in the third quarter.
“As a defense you always want to get a shutout. That is your main goal,” senior defensive end Tim Fugger said. “Our offense was scoring left and right and any time your offense is scoring that many points, you’re defense can maybe let it slip a little bit. But, yeah, we played lights out with a lot of guys making plays. I’m proud of our guys.”
Less than six minutes in, Stacy scored his first touchdown on a 3-yard run – one play after Kentucky punter Ryan Tydlacka dropped a low, ankle-high snap at his own 8-yard line.
After a first-quarter interception near the goal line, quarterback Jordan Rodgers didn’t make many mistakes, especially on third down. The converted six of 10 third-down tries in the first half and were 10-of-18 for the game.
Rodgers’ two biggest third-down conversions came in the second quarter on an 11-play, 86-yard scoring drive that took nearly six minutes. On third-and-1 at his own 23-yard line, he lofted a pass right over the shoulder and into the hands of wide receiver Jordan Matthews down the far sideline for a 29-yard gain. Later, on third-and-13, Rodgers capped the drive with a pass underneath coverage, finding Chris Boyd near the goal line as he rolled in for a 14-yard touchdown.
Thanks to another Stacy touchdown and a last-minute 32-yard field goal by Ryan Fowler, Vanderbilt led 24-0 at halftime.
“I saw a Vanderbilt team that has perhaps changed forever ... for the better,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.
After much disappointment at Vanderbilt Stadium the last two seasons, the Commodores picked up their fifth home win. They hadn’t achieved such success in Nashville since winning six home games in 1982.
Stacy’s emphatic touchdown – his ninth of the season – was the exclamation mark on a day dedicated to honoring Vanderbilt’s 32 academic seniors.
After rushing for 135 yards on 28 carries, the junior is just 109 rushing yards away from becoming the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1995. His last rush against Kentucky was his most impressive.
First hit at the 9-yard line, a massive pile – of Kentucky and Vanderbilt players – began to form at the six-yard line. Underneath it was Stacy, who kept plugging away, never falling even after he crossed the goal line.
“It was just basically a lot of adrenaline and a lot of moving of the feet,” Stacy said. “It was just a great effort, not only by me but a couple guys who were able to push me in – just a team touchdown.”