KNOXVILLE – The pick-six boosted Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, it also bit the Commodores.
Tennessee’s Eric Gordon intercepted a Jordan Rodgers pass and raced 90 yards for a game-winning, game-ending touchdown, sinking the Commodores 27-21 in overtime Saturday night in front of 91,367 at Neyland Stadium.
Missed field goals, penalties and turnovers kept Vanderbilt from leaving Knoxville with just its second win here since 1975.The Commodores (5-6, 2-6 SEC) now must win at Wake Forest next week in order to reach its second bowl in four years.
“We’re frustrated. We feel like we should have won that game,” Rodgers said. “We stopped ourselves from doing that. Props to Tennessee, they fought back when they needed to. ... But, really, we are beating ourselves right now, and we’ve got to be able to fix that to win on the road in the SEC.”
Instead, Tennessee (5-6, 1-6) was celebrating — twice.
Gordon, a Nashville native and Hillsboro grad, was mobbed by his teammates in the end zone only to be called back to the sideline when officials ruled his knee touched the ground. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley challenged the play. It was determined the knee never hit the grass as Gordon corralled the pass that was intended for Vanderbilt wide receiver Wesley Tate.
“They blew the whistle. They blew the play dead. They blew him down,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “But they said, they explained to me, why you can do that and the play can still count. I’ll find out more about that on Wednesday like I do every week when I turn the plays in on Monday.”
After the game, the SEC’s coordinator of officials Steve Shaw released a statement saying “by rule, if there was a whistle blown, the play is not reviewable.”
Still, a game-ending play finally went Tennessee’s way.
Last year, at LSU and in the Music City Bowl against North Carolina, the Volunteers thought they had won at the finish. On both occasions, penalties went against them, ultimately leading to a loss.
Not this time. Consequently, the Volunteers can clinch a bowl berth with a win at Kentucky next week.
“I think the luck has turned at Tennessee,” Dooley said. “I don’t care how this happened but we got one.”
Vanderbilt’s offense sputtered, headlined by Rodgers’ four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble).
“My play was unacceptable,” he said. “I can’t turn the ball over like that.”
He wasn’t the only one who misfired.
Ryan Fowler also missed two field goals — from 44 and 34 yards away. Vanderbilt’s biggest offensive play of the night — a 72-yard connection from Rodgers to Chris Boyd in the third quarter — put the Commodores at the 1-yard line. That was negated, though, due a clipping penalty against offensive lineman Josh Jelesky. In fact, after a sack on Rodgers, the Commodores ended up at their own 1-yard line — a 98-yard swing.
“We still made critical mistakes at times,” Franklin said. “You can’t do it, especially on the road, in this league. You can’t do it.”
Linebacker Archibald Barnes nearly single-handedly lifted the Commodores back into the game. He recorded his first two career interceptions, with the first leading to Vanderbilt’s first score of the game – a 6-yard touchdown run by Zac Stacy that tied the game at 7 at the beginning of the second quarter.
His biggest pick came midway through the third quarter with Tennessee leading 14-7 and threatening to score again.
On third-and-goal at the 3-yard line, Tyler Bray tried to sneak a pass into the end zone but Barnes stepped in front of the intended receiver for the interception. He then chugged 100 yards untouched for the longest interception return in school history and tied the game at 14 with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
“The D-line probably got some hands in the quarterback’s face and I just saw the ball and made a break on it,” Barnes said. “When it hit my hands, I just saw the lights and took off. I knew my guy was behind me. I kept getting a glance over my shoulder and [cornerback] Trey Wilson was right there behind me, leading me the whole way. I just had to make sure I made it through the end zone.”
Vanderbilt jumped ahead 21-14 on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Chris Boyd with 12:21 left in the game. The Commodores couldn’t get a defensive stop as Tennessee countered with a 10-play, 80-yard drive.
It seemed the series had ended when Sean Richardson had blocked Michael Palardy’s 23-yard field goal attempt. Richardson, however, was flagged for running into the kicker and it was ruled he didn’t deflect the kick, which hit a lineman.
“I saw [Richardson] break through free and I saw him reach up and I just heard, ‘Ba-boom.’ I figured we blocked it,” Barnes said. “I thought for sure that we had got our hands on it. I even asked the ref after the play but he was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if it didn’t cross the line.’ It didn’t get blocked by Sean Richardson and I guess he ran into the kicker. But I did not see all of that go down.”
After a replay challenge by Franklin, the ruling stood up, giving Tennessee a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. The Volunteers went for it as Da’Rick Rogers made a spectacular one-handed catch while getting a foot down in the corner of the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
With 2:02 left, Vanderbilt had one last chance to win the game in regulation. With 20 seconds remaining, Prentiss Waggner intercepted a Rodgers pass that breezed by Tate’s shoulder and sent the game to overtime.
“I hate for them,” Franklin said. “I know how much they have invested. I know the type of kids they are. I know the roller coaster they have been on since they arrived on campus. It’s not me. It’s not me that I’m concerned about. It is the guys in there. ... They deserve it. I have to find ways to allow those guys to have more success. That is my responsibility. We’re going to keep fighting through it.”