Speaking on his post-game show, Fulmer called the performance "a great win," noting that 25 victories in the last 26 meetings with Vandy is "pretty special."
After laying an egg in a 13-7 Homecoming loss to Wyoming the week of Fulmer's resignation announcement, the Vols showed renewed energy and focus in their first outing since then.
"I'm really pleased with the team, and the way they responded after all they've been through," Fulmer said.
The return of tailbacks Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer from 2007, coupled with virtually no experience at the quarterback position, led most observers to believe Tennessee would rely heavily on its ground attack in 2008. It didn't happen, however, until Saturday afternoon in Music City, when the Big Orange ran the ball 51 times and passed it just nine times.
Given that two of Tennessee's nine passes were intercepted – one being returned for Vandy's lone touchdown – the imbalance of the Vols' run/pass ratio was easy to understand.
Starting quarterback Jonathan Crompton was picked off by Vanderbilt's Myron Lewis at the UT 34-yard line on the game's second scrimmage play. The Vol defense met the challenge, however, and forced a punt.
"Our defense did a heck of a job holding and making the plays to get that done," Fulmer said. "That (interception) is not the way you want to start the game."
After a three-and-out on UT's second possession, redshirt freshman B. J. Coleman replaced Crompton and directed the Vols the rest of the half. He had a crucial 10-yard keeper on a 64-yard touchdown drive that gave Tennessee a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The enthusiastic Coleman appeared to provide a much-needed spark.
"He did," Fulmer said. "B.J. did a nice job. He's young and has lots and lots to learn – which was reflected a couple of times during the course of the ball game – but he went in there and absolutely competed."
Following a short Vanderbilt punt and a 27-yard run by Hardesty, Daniel Lincoln booted a 25-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead. Four plays later, Eric Berry intercepted a Chris Nickson pass and returned it 45 yards to put Tennessee on top 17-0. The interception was Berry's 12th in 25 college games and the touchdown return was his second of the season.
"Tennessee people are blessed to have this guy around for a while still," Fulmer said. "He's a great person, great leader, great football player ... a guy that could easily make a run at the Heisman Trophy next year. He's that kind of football player."
Mackenzi Adams replaced Nickson and marched Vandy to the Vol 32-yard line, only to throw a pass intercepted and returned 69 yards by Brent Vinson. A late-hit penalty moved the ball to the 8-yard line with 16 seconds left to the break. After an incompletion, Lincoln booted a 24-yard field goal that widened the gap to 20-0 four seconds shy of halftime.
Vanderbilt got a 31-yard Bryant Hahnfeldt field goal early in the third quarter, then closed to 20-10 when Reshard Langford picked off a Coleman pass and raced 42 yards to the end zone with 4:20 left in the period.
Tennessee's offense made another crucial mistake early in the fourth quarter, when Creer lost a fumble at the Vanderbilt 41-yard line. The Vol defense came to the rescue again, however, forcing a punt.
The Commodores made two forays into Tennessee territory during the game's final minutes but could not score.
Creer finished with 80 yards on 13 carries. Foster added 53 on 11 and Hardesty 41 on seven rushes. Coleman was 4 of 8 passing for 21 yards, Crompton 0 of 1.
Nickson had a nightmarish game for Vanderbilt, finishing with minus-7 yards on nine rushes and minus-4 yards on 1-of-5 passing. Adams came off the bench to complete 18 of 38 passes for 192 yards. He also rushed for 31 yards, although sacks reduced his net total to plus-4.
The Commodores managed just 25 net yards on 28 rushes and converted on just four of 17 third-down tries. They gave up seven sacks and punted the ball away seven times.
Whereas Tennessee's defense played well enough to win, its offense played adequately enough NOT to lose the game. The Vols managed to maintain possession for 35:14 to Vandy's 24:46. And, except for the pick-six interception, none of their turnovers proved costly.
Fulmer, now 15-1 vs. Vandy as a head coach, praised Commodore head man Bobby Johnson for molding a competitive team despite restrictive academic standards.
"You take your hat off to him for getting them where they are," Fulmer said. "But we're still Tennessee. We've got better players and most of the time we should win these games."