UT hits 'rock bottom'

Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer experienced his ultimate peak in 1998, winning a national championship. Saturday he experienced his ultimate valley … he hopes.

"I guess sometimes, before you start building back, you've got to hit rock bottom," he said following a 28-24 home-field loss to Vanderbilt. "This is about rock bottom."

That might be premature. Considering how poorly the Vols are playing, rock bottom could arrive next Saturday at Lexington. A loss to Kentucky would doom Tennessee to a 4-7 overall record, a 2-6 conference mark, an 0-5 record within the division and last place in the SEC East. THAT would be rock bottom.

Still, Fulmer has every right to feel his team is close. Tennessee has lost five of its last six games after opening the season ranked No. 3 nationally. The Vols are assured their first losing record and first season without a bowl bid since 1988, a span of 16 years. The loss to perennial whipping boy Vandy was Tennessee's first since 1982, a span of 22 years.

After winning their first four games of 2005, the Commodores had lost six games in a row. But they beat Tennessee the same way five previous foes did – by hanging around long enough for the Vols to self-destruct.

After carrying Tennessee's sputtering offense for 9 ¾ games, the defense finally crumbled under the strain. Leading 24-21 with 4:44 to play, Tennessee needed just one first down to seal the victory. But the Vol offense twice suffered three-and-outs that gave the ball back to Vanderbilt.

The Commodores took advantage of the second opportunity, driving 63 yards in three plays for the go-ahead score. Quarterback Jay Cutler hit freshman receiver Earl Bennett with a five-yard touchdown pass to give the ‘Dores a four-point lead with 1:11 to play.

The big play on Vandy's game-winning drive was a 31-yard bomb to Bennett that carried to Tennessee's 17-yard line. Vol cornerback Inky Johnson, a bright spot all day long, had one-on-one coverage but couldn't make the play.

"When you live by the sword (man coverage) you die by the sword sometimes," Fulmer noted. "We played a lot of man, which was very good for us, in the second half. But Cutler, who is a very good quarterback, made a couple of plays."

The Vols advanced to Vandy's 11-yard line on their final drive but Rick Clausen was intercepted by Jared Fagan on the game's final play, sealing Tennessee's doom.

Clausen finished 11 of 25 for 125 yards but those numbers should've been better. Robert Meachem dropped a perfectly thrown 41-yard strike at the Vandy 5-yard line in the third quarter. Two plays later, fellow wideout Chris Hannon had another well-thrown pass bounce off his shoulder pads at the Commodore 25-yard line, resulting in an interception.

"We didn't do anything to speak of in the passing game," Fulmer said. "We dropped a long gain on a take-off (to Meachem) and got an interception on one (to Hannon) that looked like it hit us right between the numbers."

The loss squandered a brilliant performance by Vol tailback Arian Foster, who rushed 40 times for 223 yards. Fulmer said the freshman had "a fantastic day," adding: "We were riding that horse pretty hard…. He's one of the few consistent playmakers on our offensive team this year."

Foster found no joy in what he called "individual accolades," however.

"If that's what you're playing for, you shouldn't be playing," he said. "You play the game to win."

Clearly distraught, Foster felt he and his offensive mates let the game slip away by twice giving the ball back to Vandy in the final 4:44.

"The defense stepped up," he said. "We had a chance to put it away with a couple of first downs. But it didn't happen."

Fulmer agreed whole-heartedly with that assessment.

"We should've never had to punt," the Vol coach said. "We certainly should've never had to punt TWICE after the defense got off the field. That's like playing fire."

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