KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s bowl eligibility got flushed Saturday when the Volunteers came up short in a real stinker.
In a game uglier than homemade sin, Vanderbilt drove 92 yards in 12 plays and four minutes for former Maryville quarterback Patton Robinette’s game-winning 5-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.
The 14-10 victory – on a cold night in front of an announced attendance of 97,223 – was the second straight in the series for James Franklin’s Commodores (4-4, 7-4) and ended any hopes of a bowl for first-year coach Butch Jones’ Volunteers (1-6, 4-7).
The touchdown was a shot of redemption for Robinette, who fumbled the ball away to Tennessee on what would’ve been a fourth-and-inches or a game-tying 34-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter. Former Dobyns-Bennett player Devaun Swafford forced the fumble.
The game-winning drive appeared to have stalled after Vandy quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels’ sneak was initially ruled short of the stick at the Tennessee 34. But replay reversed the spot after many Vols had celebrated, and Vanderbilt had a first down at the Tennessee 33 with 45 seconds left and two timeouts.
Receiver Jordan Matthews caught a 25-yard pass from Carta-Samuels on the next play, and two plays later, Robinette went around the right end to pay-dirt.
It was an eventful night for Matthews. He became the SEC’s all-time receptions leader in the first half and turned the ball over with a fumble inside the 5-yard line on what would’ve been a first-and-goal in the second quarter.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound senior piled up 13 catches for 133 yards against the Vols, who had 16 yards passing on 17 pass attempts before completing two passes on the final drive, which led to a 48-yard Hail Mary attempt falling to the ground near the goal line on the game’s final play.
The score was tied at 7 after a brutally ugly first half, and the warts took no time to begin surfacing.
Vanderbilt had a false start on fourth-and-inches and subsequently shanked a 16-yard punt to conclude its opening drive. Three plays later UT freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs was intercepted by Kenny Ladler, who would be ejected in the second half after a targeting penalty that negated a third-down stop and an incompletion by Dobbs.
The first quarter included a blocked field goal, a botched handoff, an interception and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
Tennessee punter/kicker Michael Palardy’s misadventures were a microcosm of both teams’ shaky night.
Palardy threw an interception on a fake field goal, dropped a snap on a punt, shanked a punt, had a field goal blocked and, in what looked like it’d prove to be a game-winning moment of a triumph, made a field goal off the left upright with 9:06 left in the third quarter.
Palardy’s interception came when Jones decided not to attempt a 41-yard field goal into a “crosswind.”
Tennessee had a block in the back negate Dobbs’ 13-yard would-be TD two plays before Palardy’s interception.
Jones also mentioned a non-call on what he thought was a delay of game on third-down conversion pass to Jonathan Krause on Vanderbilt’s game-winning drive.
The Volunteers received no luck from the Smokey Gray uniforms they wore for the second time. Among Tennessee’s woes was receiver Marquez North’s ankle injury in the first quarter.
Dobbs’ two interceptions came in his first seven attempts. The Vols had three turnovers and Vanderbilt finished with four, including three fumbles.
If dejected Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel Hood’s any indication, Tennessee will have a tough time bouncing back for the season finale Saturday at Kentucky.
If it’s any motivation, a win would allow the Vols to avoid the SEC East cellar.
“We have 28 seniors who have given everything to this football program,” Jones said. “Yeah, it’s emotional. I feel for these kids. … We’ve got one more game left as a football team for the football program to get better.”
But after letting this ugly win slip away in what had seemed like an encouraging first season not so long ago, it’s too late for Jones to sell most of the Vols fans on much improvement having been made in 2013.