Vols save best for last

The old cliché that it takes 60 minutes of football to win was about 45 minutes off the mark in Saturday's Tennessee-Vanderbilt game.

The Vols played well for just 15 minutes – the last 15 – but that was enough to rally for a dramatic 25-24 triumph at Neyland Stadium.

After producing just 226 yards and nine points through three periods, the Big Orange offense exploded for 124 yards and 16 points in the final period.

After surrendering 254 yards, 24 points and six third-down conversions through three periods, the Big Orange defense allowed just 16 yards, zero points and zero third-down conversions in the final period.

After missing a PAT and a field goal in the first three quarters, Daniel Lincoln coolly booted a game-winning 33-yard field goal with 2:46 left in the final period.

After completing just 17 of 28 passes for 138 yards and one touchdown in the first three quarters, Erik Ainge was 12 of 15 for 107 yards and two TDs in the final period.

Except for a touchdown march on their opening possession, the Vol offense was an exercise in futility throughout the game's first 45 minutes.

"I think we're on the right track, from the standpoint of what we would like to be as a football team," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "But the first half was not necessarily indicative of anything that we wanted to look like."

The Vols scored with such ease on their opening drive that it may have given them a false sense of security.

"We came out really great on the first series – as we've done so many times," Fulmer noted, "and I think maybe everybody assumed too much there."

Vanderbilt's 2007 defense is its best in 10 years, and the Commodores gave UT fits after that initial possession.

"All of a sudden we kind of hit a wall," Fulmer said.

After running into that wall for three quarters, Tennessee decided to throw over the wall in the final period. The Vols passed for 107 yards and ran for just 17 in rallying for 16 fourth-quarter points.

The fourth-period rally by Tennessee's defense was just as dramatic. After forcing just two three-and-outs in the first three quarters, the Vols forced three consecutive three-and-outs in the final period.

Then, after a 55-yard punt return gave Vandy the ball at the Vol 42-yard line with 2:34 to play, Tennessee's defense surrendered just 11 yards – nine of that coming on a questionable pass interference call. Had the stop unit allowed five more yards in that situation, the 49-yard Bryan Hahnfeldt field goal that passed just outside the left upright would've passed just inside it, giving Vandy a 27-25 victory.

"Defensively," Fulmer said, "it was too much like some of the games (Cal, Florida, Alabama) that we didn't play well. We just could not get off blocks. Their offensive linemen are good but we looked like we were glued to ‘em in the first half. In the second half it was entirely different."

All's well that ends well, and this game ended with Tennessee on top of the score and on top of the SEC East standings. Still, Fulmer knows the Vols must play significantly better in the regular-season finale at Kentucky or else they will blow their invitation to the SEC Championship Game.

"We just couldn't execute as well as we need to," he said. "We could be sitting here easily very disappointed.

"I have to look at that."

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