Tennessee (8-3 overall, 4-3 SEC) hosts Kentucky next Saturday in its season finale. Fulmer is hoping to see an equally strong effort against the Wildcats, noting: "I want this team to write the last chapter of this season the way they started it – with excitement, enthusiasm and effort, playing good, tough, solid football."
Redshirt freshman LaMarcus Coker came off the bench to gain 126 of Tennessee's 163 rushing yards, scoring on runs of eight and 87 yards. Coker said on the post-game show that his 87-yarder was the same play he broke for an 89-yard TD in Game 4 against Marshall, with key blocks from the same two receivers.
"Just like against Marshall (Jayson) Swain picked up a good block and (Robert) Meachem cut the safety off," Coker said. "I hit it right between the tackle and the guard and, with those blocks on the outside, it was off to the races."
Starting tailback Montario Hardesty added 52 yards on nine carries. As usual, Meachem (7 catches, 95 yards) and Swain (6 catches, 76 yard) led the receiving corps.
Bouncing back from two sub-par efforts in a row, Tennessee's defense stifled Vandy except for a 92-yard drive that gave the Commodores a short-lived 7-6 lead early in the second quarter.
After being victimized by mobile quarterbacks in earlier games, the Vols limited Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson to 34 yards on 13 carries. Tennessee also disrupted Nickson's passing. The sophomore finished 10 of 23 for 97 yards but was 4 of 13 for 7 yards with two interceptions after halftime.
"We were very intent that that guy wasn't going to be a factor," Fulmer said. "We did a really good job in our rush lanes, much different than we did earlier in the year when we played South Carolina."
Earl Bennett, who burned the Big Orange for 167 receiving yards and the game-winning touchdown on 14 catches in last year's game, was a non-factor this time. He finished with just four catches for 16 yards, including two grabs for minus-4 yards in the second half.
All told, Tennessee piled up 429 yards of total offense to Vandy's 218.
James Wilhoit nailed four field goals for the Vols. His first two – covering 43 and 27 yards, respectively – provided a 6-0 first-quarter lead. Vandy's 92-yard drive, capped by a seven-yard strike from Nickson to George Smith on third and goal, gave the Dores a 7-6 lead that lasted exactly 2½ minutes.
That's how long it took Tennessee to go 80 yards in six plays, Coker getting the score from eight yards out. The Vols scored again on their next possession, Ainge hitting Swain with a six-yard pass just 17 seconds shy of halftime to cap a 45-yard drive following a short Vandy punt. A two-point conversion try failed but UT still took a 19-7 lead to the locker room.
Another Wilhoit field goal – this one from 22 yards out – padded the lead to 22-7 early in the third quarter, then Coker broke the game open with his 87-yard burst.
Jonathan Hefney and Jonathan Wade intercepted Nickson on back-to-back fourth quarter pass attempts. Hefney's "oskie" preceded a 17-yard TD pass from Ainge to Meachem. Wade's interception set up a 41-yard field goal that padded the lead to 39-7.
Fulmer noted that Vol defensive backs "played very strong. We got up in their face and took the receivers on."
Vandy's Patrick Johnson kicked a 21-yard field goal with 1:03 left to secure the final margin.
The Commodores conclude the season 4-8 overall and 1-7 in SEC play.