"That was huge," Vol quarterback Erik Ainge said. "When you get second life like that you've got to go take advantage of it. Obviously, we were very fortunate there."
Indeed they were.
"That roughing the punter … that swung the momentum right there," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who recorded a season-high 15 stops for the Vols.
Indeed it did. After a three-and-out by Vandy, Tennessee scored again on its next possession to pull within 24-22. A two-point conversion pass failed but the Vol defense forced another three-and-out, then freshman Dennis Rogan returned a punt 45 yards to the Commodore 33-yard line. Daniel Lincoln nailed a 33-yard field goal six plays later, giving Tennessee a 25-24 lead with 2:46 to play.
There were two more big plays in the kicking game still to unfold, however. Vandy's D.J. Moore returned Tennessee's ensuing kickoff 55 yards to the Vol 42-yard line. Six plays later, however, Bryan Hahnfeldt just missed a potential game-winning 49-yard field goal with 33 seconds left, allowing Tennessee to escape.
"I saw it drifting," Mayo recalled of Hahnfeldt's dramatic kick. "I saw it drift off to the left, said, ‘Thank God!' and walked off the field."
Equal parts relieved and elated, head coach Phillip Fulmer quipped: "I don't know I can follow any better than that … Thank God!"
Thank Rogan, too. His punt return was huge.
"You never know what would've happened if we'd had those other 40 yards to get," Ainge said. "We could've gone three-and-out and had to punt and we might not have won the football game."
In addition to his big punt return, Rogan had a 41-yard kickoff return. He also eluded two blockers to make a touchdown-saving stop on Moore's kickoff return just prior to Hahnfeldt's ill-fated field-goal attempt.
"Dennis Rogan did a lot of special things," Vol tight end Chris Brown said. "He comes out there and makes plays."
The win improves Tennessee to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in SEC play. If the Vols beat Kentucky next Saturday in Lexington they will represent the Eastern Division opposite West champ LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
The loss has to be a bitter one for Vanderbilt, now 5-6 overall and 2-6 in league play. The Commodores executed their game plan brilliantly, converting 6 of 14 third-down tries to UT's 2 of 12 and maintaining possession 33:42 to 26:18. They limited Tennessee to 105 rushing yards and made Ainge look bad at times, although his final numbers (29 of 43, 245 yards, 3 TDs) looked pretty good.
"They brought new stuff – new blitzes, new coverages, things we weren't expecting," Ainge said. "We'd call something, then they'd change real quick and go to something else. They did a good job of keeping us off balance."
Ultimately, Tennessee solved this problem by going with a spread formation and throwing on almost every down. Ainge completed 12 of 15 passes for 117 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter.
"We knew when we spread ‘em out what we were going to get," Ainge said, subsequently adding: "We knew spreading ‘em out we could out-athlete ‘em outside (Vol receivers vs. Vandy defensive backs)."
Tennessee went 75 yards in nine plays to score on the game's opening possession, Ainge hitting Lucas Taylor with a six-yard pass. The score remained 6-0 as Lincoln's conversion kick was blocked and a subsequent 41-yard field-goal try bounded off the right upright.
A five-yard pass from Mackenzie Adams to Brad Allen capped a 78-yard Vandy drive as the Commodores went up 7-6 but Lincoln hit a 34-yard field goal to give Tennessee a 9-7 lead. A 19-yard pass from Adams to Jeff Jennings put Vandy on top 14-9 with just 47 seconds left to halftime, then an ill-advised lateral by Ainge was scooped up by Patrick Benoist and returned to the Vol 16-yard line. Three incompletions later, Hahnfeldt hit a 33-yard field goal for a 17-9 halftime lead.
The Vols got a double-dose of bluster during the break. Fulmer said he "raked ‘em over the coals" and Mayo vented a bit, as well.
"He said we needed to get our heads out of our butts and go play some football," Vol defensive end Xavier Mitchell recalled.
Instead, Tennessee allowed Vanderbilt to take the second-half kickoff and march 75 yards in 11 plays. A one-yard toss from Adams to George Smith gave the Commodores a 24-9 lead, setting up the big finish. The 15-point deficit was the second-biggest fourth-quarter margin UT has overcome in school history.
Vandy's Adams finished 14 of 26 passing for 139 yards and three touchdowns. Knoxville native Cassen Jackson-Garrison gained 83 yards on 23 carries. Earl Bennett caught just two passes for 26 yards before a big second-quarter hit by Vol safety Eric Berry sidelined him for the entire second half.
Arian Foster led Tennessee rushers with 106 yards on 19 carries and Taylor led the receivers with 90 yards on nine catches.
After surrendering 254 yards of total offense through the first three quarters, Tennessee's defense turned impregnable in the final period, limiting Vandy to 16 yards. That, coupled with a strong finish by the Vol offense, put the game in the hands of Lincoln, who had missed a PAT and a 41-yard field goal earlier in the contest.
"On the first extra point, it's a wonder it didn't hit the center in the butt," Fulmer said. "It was so low … a terrible kick. But he came through when he had to. He hit it (game-winner) like a big-timer is supposed to hit it, and that was great to see."