KNOXVILLE — Eric Gordon and Tennessee are suddenly a good pick to return to a bowl game.
Gordon returned a Jordan Rodgers interception 90 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of overtime for a 27-21 victory against Vanderbilt on Saturday in Neyland Stadium.
The victory set off a jubilant celebration by Tennessee assistant coaches in the press box. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney could be heard shouting, “We finally got a break.”
The Volunteers (1-6, 5-6) can clinch coach Derek Dooley’s second bowl berth in as many years with a victory on Saturday at Kentucky.
Gordon’s interception, which came on a 3rd-and-6 at the Tennessee 11-yard line, was the second one by Rodgers in a five-play sequence. His previous interception came with 20 seconds left in regulation with the Commodores nearing range for a game-winning field goal attempt.
As it turned out, Waggner left the game — apparently with an ailing left shoulder — after tackling Rodgers on an 11-yard run on the first play of overtime.
“It was a big step for our program. … We got the breaks tonight,” Dooley said. “But there was a lot of grit, effort and togetherness.”
Tennessee tied the score at 21 with 6:27 remaining in regulation on a 3-yard TD pass from Tyler Bray to Da’Rick Rogers. It came on a fourth-down play after a running-into-the-kicker penalty had erased a blocked field goal. Vanderbilt’s Sean Richardson dove into kicker Michael Palardy on the play, but wasn’t the one that blocked the extremely low kick.
“It wasn’t a block, it was kick into the center’s tail,” Dooley said.
The penalty set the stage for Rogers, who made a difficult, twisting, one-handed catch while falling out of bounds across the right side of the end zone.
Rogers was obviously excited about the return of Bray, who hadn’t played since fracturing the thumb on his throwing hand on Oct. 8 against Georgia. Rogers caught 10 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns, and went over 1,000 yards receiving for the season.
Bray found him near the front, left pylon for a 17-yard TD pass on a 3rd-and-4 with 7:48 left in the first half. Rogers had four catches for 60 yards on the drive, including a 7-yard reception on a 3rd-and-6 at the Vanderbilt 30.
Tennessee’s first score was a 1-yard run by senior Tauren Poole (19 carries, 107 yards) with 9:02 left in the first quarter. It capped a 21-yard drive that began after the Vols’ Rod Wilks returned a Rodgers fumble 25 yards to the Vanderbilt 21-yard line.
Vanderbilt had driven 36 yards on the game’s opening possession to the Tennessee 40, where it had 3rd-and-10 when senior Malik Jackson forced a Rodgers fumble some 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Jackson was one of three seniors on Senior Night who made an early impact. Austin-East product Anthony Anderson made a good play to down a punt at the Vanderbilt 7, and Poole gained 32 yards and scored the TD in the first quarter. Senior linebacker Austin Johnson had an interception.
The Commodores (2-6, 5-6) tied the score at 7 on Zac Stacy’s 6-yard run on the first play after linebacker Archibald Barnes returned a Bray interception 28 yards.
Tennessee answered with a 10-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, which Rogers’ 17-yard TD catch capped.
Bray struggled at times, finishing 16 of 33 for 189 yards and two interceptions. Barnes also returned one of Bray’s interceptions 100 yards for a TD that tied the score at 14 with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
Tennessee led 14-7 at halftime despite being modestly outgained (175-126). Vanderbilt kicker Ryan Fowler missed a 34- and 44-yard field goal in the first half.
Tennessee hasn’t lost to Kentucky since 1984, and extending the streak would earn the Vols a bowl bid.
“I just didn’t want Kentucky to be my last game,” Poole said, “and I thank God that it isn’t.”