And it prevented a second consecutive embarrassing loss to a program that Tennessee had owned since 1982 – until last year.
Face it, a second straight loss to Vanderbilt would have had the wolves nipping at coach Phillip Fulmer's heels. Losing once to Vanderbilt is tough to take. Losing two in a row might get you a moving van in the front yard.
Tennessee wasn't flawless against Vanderbilt, but it was efficient. The Vols scored on eight of 11 possessions – four touchdowns and four field goals. And a defense which had allowed almost 220 rushing yards in the last three games held Vanderbilt to 218 total yards – 109 rushing, 109 on the ground.
The Vols did a terrific job containing quarterback Chris Nickson, who had 517 total yards against Kentucky but only 141 against Tennessee. Nickson had averaged 333 passing yards in the last thee games. He got 97 on 10 of 23 accuracy against UT.
Nickson managed 44 hard-earned yards on 13 carries before getting benched after throwing consecutive interceptions to start the fourth quarter.
Tennessee turned those turnovers into 10 points, erasing any hopes of a miraculous Vanderbilt comeback.
``When you have a quarterback who is the team's leading rusher, it's hard to contain him,'' said defensive end Robert Ayers, who started in place of the injured Antonio Reynolds. ``We hit him consistently. We knew once we took him out of the game, we'd stop them.''
Indeed, the Vols put the clamps on an offense that racked up 627 yards the week before against Kentucky. Until reserves took over in the fourth quarter, Vandy had just one sustained drive in 10 possessions, going 92 yards on 15 plays and converting all four third-down attempts, including a third-and-14.
That march gave Vandy a 7-6 lead. It conjured up bad memories of UT's inability to stop opponents on third-and-long and it made you wonder if UT settling for two earlier field goals would come back to haunt offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. It didn't, of course. Vanderbilt offense was rather anemic, except for the long scoring drive.
Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett, who led the nation in receiving yards entering the game, was held to four catches, 10 fewer than he caught a year ago against the Vols. He had 78 entering the game. He was frustrated by tight coverage, mostly from Jonathan Wade, who was torched the week before by Arkansas' Marcus Monk.
``Right place at the right time,'' Wade said of a fourth-quarter interception that he almost returned for a touchdown. ``We knew we needed to get pressure and stay disciplined and play fast.''
Tennessee played much faster than a Vanderbilt team that showed the affects of playing a 12th consecutive week. Fatigue might have played a part in allowing Kentucky 597 yards. It certainly played a part in a lackluster effort against Tennessee.
This wasn't the same Vandy team that lost by three to Alabama and missed a late field goal that would have beaten Arkansas. It was the first time this season Vanderbilt lost by more than 20 points.
``We're still Tennessee and we are to be respected,'' said center Josh McNeil. ``We came out to prove a point.''
Consider the point proven, whatever it was. Maybe it was proving last year's loss to Vandy was a fluke. Maybe it was to show this is a solid UT team that could win 10 games.
``I'm proud of our football team and the focus they kept after a couple of tough weeks,'' said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. ``We're going to be just as intense for Kentucky.
Quarterback Erik Ainge showed why UT missed him against LSU and Arkansas. He started hot and stayed hot. He completed 21 of 26 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns and left Fulmer wondering what might have been had Ainge been healthy the previous two games.
The Vols also got a spark from tailback LaMarcus Coker, who rushed for 126 yards on just 10 carries, including an explosive 87-yard third-quarter run that mirrored his long scoring run against Marshall.
``My knee feels fine,'' said Coker, slowed the past month by a sprained MCL.
Coker began the game wearing a knee brace. He took it off after the first quarter.
``I didn't really want to play with it,'' Coker said. ``They (training staff) just said be smart about it.''
Coker looked smart running.
About the only negative on offense was settling for four field goals. James Wilhoit scored 15 points to take over the SEC active scoring lead with 316 points.
He should get plenty more opportunities against Kentucky as Tennessee tries to cap off a good season with a Senior Day win against the Wildcats.
FULMTER CHALLENGES OFFICIALS
Fulmer was uncharacteristically critical of the officials after the game.
He was particularly upset when an official signaled ``good'' on a two-point conversion pass from Ainge to Jayson Swain. Replays showed Swain clearly didn't have possession, but that didn't satisfy Fulmer.
``My reaction was directly related to Florida (in 2000),'' Fulmer said of a play that helped the Gators beat Tennessee in the final seconds. The disputed call led rules officials to redefine the definition of a catch.
``Officiating in the conference has to be looked at,'' Fulmer said.
Fulmer also said he was angered by what he considered a blown call late in the fourth quarter of the LSU game. UT caused and recovered a fumble by quarterback JaMarcus Russell, but an official ruled Russell's forward progress had been stopped, a call disputed by replay.
``I got a message (from the SEC) Monday, saying `You're right, we were mistaken,''' Fulmer said. ``That's not good enough. There's been too much of that.''
Fulmer said officials shouldn't be so hard headed as to not review the play with Russell, although the rules clearly state when officials blow a whistle or rule forward progress, it cannot be reviewed.
Fulmer also said ``there's nothing else to review,'' once an official signals a touchdown or two-point conversion. Actually, that type play is reviewable.