UT keeps SEC East hopes alive

If not for bad luck, Vanderbilt would have no luck at all – and Tennessee would be out of the SEC's East Division race.

A first-half injury to the SEC's all-time leading receiver, a third-quarter roughing the punter penalty and a field goal that nicked the upright cost Vanderbilt a second consecutive win over Tennessee in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

Now the Vols (8-3, 5-2 SEC) are a Kentucky win away from sending coach Phillip Fulmer to his fifth SEC Championship game in 15 years.

Not that Tennessee is playing like an East Division champion.

In fact, this isn't close to one of Tennessee's better teams under Fulmer. But if the Vols can get a win in the Commonwealth, it doesn't matter. They'll take on top-ranked LSU in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 1.

After Vandy kicker Bryan Hahnfeldt hit the left upright on a 49-yard field-goal attempt with 33 seconds left, the Vols celebrated a 25-24 victory on the field and took it to the dressing room, singing: ``We don't give a (dang) about the whole school of Vanderbilt – we're from Tennessee.''

Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo was on the field when Vandy attempted the go-ahead field-goal try.

``I saw it drifting and said, `Thank God,' and I walked off the field,'' Mayo said.

As Fulmer took the podium, he said: ``I don't know that I can follow anything better than that – thank God.''

Fulmer said UT might have gotten an assist from another source – a former special teams coach, a man who despised Vanderbilt.

``Coach (George) Cafego, we felt his presence might have pushed that field goal to the left,'' Fulmer said.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis was worried.

``My heart pounded when it hit the upright,'' Chavis said.

It ended a rather lethargic performance by the 19th-ranked Vols, who had much more on the line than Vanderbilt (5-6) but didn't play like it for three quarters. Vandy took control of the game in the second quarter, led 17-9 at halftime and 24-9 entering the final 15 minutes.

Then, UT scored the second-biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Neyland Stadium history. It was sparked by a senseless roughing-the-punter penalty by Broderick Stewart with 1:27 left in the third quarter.

``You get a second life like that,'' said Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, ``obviously, you've got to take advantage of it. We were fortunate.''

Said Mayo: ``I felt the swing of momentum.''

The Vols parlayed that break into touchdown to make it 24-16. After the UT defense forced two straight three-and-outs, UT marched 83 yards to cut the gap to 24-22. A failed two-point conversion with 7:14 left left more work for UT.

They needed a spark. They got one from true freshman Dennis Rogan, perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team this season. Rogan rambled 45 yards on a punt return to set UT up at the Vandy 33 with 5:50 left. On the night, he had 146 kick and punt return yards.

Tennessee couldn't move, but Daniel Lincoln did kick what turned out to be a game-winning 33-yard field goal with 2:46 remaining.

A 45-yard kick return by D.J. Moore put Vandy in prime position at the UT 42. But Chavis' defense stiffened again, forcing a 49-yard field goal try that hit the left upright and lifted UT's spirits.

``A lesser team would have bagged it, possibly,'' Fulmer said.

But a smarter, more motivated team might not have been in that position.

Give Tennessee credit for showing courage in a comeback. But don't kid yourself. This isn't a real good Vanderbilt team. Just asked Florida or Auburn, who combined to outscored the Commodores 94-29.

The Vols survived another suspect performance by Ainge, who was 29 of 43 passing for 245 yards and three touchdowns. They survived despite converting 2-of-12 on third-downs. They survived despite losing the battle of time of possession by 6 ½ minutes. And they survived despite a suspect offensive game plan.

Tennessee opened with a 75-yard touchdown drive, running effectively. On the second possession, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe went to a seldom-used five-wide formation – a plan devised before the game. UT threw nine consecutive passes before bogging down and settling for a field goal.

UT then went three-and-out with all passes. The Vols actually threw 14 straight passes.

``We don't just make that crap up,'' Fulmer said. ``We think it's gonna work.''

It did, but just briefly. It got UT to the Vandy 24 before Lincoln missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt. But it seemed to get UT out of balance.

Ainge said UT went to five wides because it allowed the offense to dictate Vandy's coverages and UT felt it could ``out-athlete'' the Commodores on the corners.

In doing so, the Vols ignored Arian Foster too often. Foster, who rushed for 223 yards against Vandy in the 2005 loss, gained 106 yards on 19 carries – 5.6 per.

UT should have run more, considering Auburn ran for 239 yards and led Vandy 35-0 midway through the third quarter, and Florida scored 49 points, thanks to 210 rushing yards.

Out of sync, Tennessee converted just 2-of-12 third-down tries.

Out of sync, Tennessee needed a historical fourth-quarter rally at home to bag an undefeated home record for the first time since 1999 and keep alive hopes of winning the East Division.

On Senior Day too many Vols played like senior citizens. They won't beat Kentucky for a 23rd straight time playing like that.

But you can't count out these Vols.

When you least expect it, they rise to the occasion.

``We didn't care if it was the Green Bay Packers,'' receivers coach Trooper Taylor said of the second-half comeback, ``we were going to win this game.''

That's really all that counts.

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