Johnson stressing importance of UT game

NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson told his players on Sunday that the Tennessee game is just as important to his football program whether there is a bowl invitation on the line or not.

Whether or not that message gets through remains to be seen, but Vanderbilt's fourth-year coach is doing his best to put the Kentucky loss in the rear view mirror and have the Commodores focus on ending a humiliating streak of 22 consecutive losses to Tennessee.

"Even though they are not at the top of the division right now, they've been a perennial power," Johnson said. "It is time we start moving up and winning those kinds of games against the Eastern division leaders. Not get close. Go ahead and win."

If the Commodores are going to do that, they'll have to do it with Cassen Jackson-Garrison carrying virtually the entire load at tailback. Jeff Jennings has been lost for the season with a torn ACL, leaving Johnson with one healthy tailback. There is a chance Vanderbilt would take the redshirt off a true freshman, but more than likely that will only be in an injury situation. The coach mentioned Earl Bennett as a possible running back, and it was not clear if the comment was in jest.

Bennett wouldn't be a bad choice, of course, as he is the hottest player on the Vanderbilt offense. Bennett has 35 catches for 378 yards and eight touchdowns in his last three games. Against Kentucky, Bennett had 13 catches for 99 yards and five touchdowns.

"It was a remarkable performance. He kept his cool the whole time, stayed humble. I love the guy. I guess tying an SEC record doesn't get you Freshman of the Week," said Johnson of the award that went to Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick (17-for-25, 175 yards, 3 TDs).

The Commodores will be facing a Tennessee team that has not been able to put together a consistent offensive effort all season. Quarterbacks Rick Clausen and Erik Ainge have gone back and forth with neither taking control of the position. Together, they have eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Yet Tennessee (4-5) enters the game as a 13-point favorite because of the strength of its defense, which is ranked fourth in the SEC and 12th in the nation.

"They can all run, including the front four," Johnson said. "They will run you down. And that is why they have been good for years and years."

If the game comes down to the fourth quarter, however, look for the Dores to have the advantage. Vanderbilt has scored 14 fourth-quarter touchdowns this season while Tennessee has managed just four. Quarterback Jay Cutler has been particularly effective in the fourth quarter with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has thrown for over 170 yards in the fourth quarter against Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky and is averaging over 100 for the season.

"It is kind of ironic that the fourth quarter was our downfall last year and this year it is our strong point," said senior tight end Dustin Dunning. "I'm not sure why in the fourth quarter we've been in aggressive mode and gotten all our points. It just shows the character of our team."

Cutler has his name all over the Vanderbilt record books for his remarkable four-year career in Nashville, but if he becomes the first quarterback since Whit Taylor to beat Tennessee, his legend will grow that much more.

"He's been a great leader. I've enjoyed every day with him," Johnson said. "Hopefully he'll have a great one over in Knoxville to finish off his career. He's done what we've asked him to do with some teams that he's had to pick up on his shoulders and carry sometimes."

He gets one last chance Saturday.

Bill Trocchi is the Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports. Top Stories