LEXINGTON, Ky.-- Kentucky followed up a heartbreaking defeat with a big win-- and Vanderbilt followed up one of its better performances of the season with a deflating loss. On a frigid day at Commonwealth Stadium, Artose Pinner rushed for 224 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to a 41-21 victory over the Commodores.
The game was actually much closer than the final score indicated. Vanderbilt trailed 28-21 through the entire fourth quarter, only to see the Wildcats score two touchdowns in the game's final 16 seconds. Pinner, the SEC's leading rusher, picked up his fourth touchdown of the day on a one-yard run with 16 seconds left, and defensive end Otis Grigsby recovered a fumble in the Vanderbilt end zone after a bad snap sailed over Jay Cutler's head on the game's final play.
One week earlier against Florida, the Commodore defense had pitched a shutout in the second half, and on this occasion against Kentucky the rapidly improving stop troops came very close to repeating that feat. The home Wildcats built a 28-14 halftime lead, but the only second-half scoring until the game's final, frantic 16 seconds came on a Jay Cutler sneak for a touchdown with 0:51 left in the third.
"We played pretty good defense in both games," said head coach Bobby Johnson. "Kentucky got one touchdown on a kickoff. When you're concentrating on your job, do what your coaches have told you, and you have a good plan, you have a chance to be successful."
But much like the previous week against Florida, Vanderbilt's offense had several fourth-quarter possessions but never seriously threatened to tie or take the lead. Starting fullback Matthew Tant sat out the second half with an injured back, and starting tailback Kwane Doster sprained an ankle in the third quarter and didn't return. Forced to go with a backfield of Jason Bourque (the team's fifth-string tailback) and backup fullback Bara Cola, the offense had to go to the air, and was mostly ineffective.
"As far as our running game, that was a big key," said Johnson. "Kwane is a special back-- he had 111 yards. Take him out of the game, and that's a big part of your offense."
The loss dropped Vanderbilt to 2-9, 0-7 in the SEC, with one game left. Kentucky improved to 7-4, 3-4, and bounced back nicely after a heartbreaking loss to LSU on a Hail Mary play one week earlier.
On senior day in Lexington, it was Pinner, a senior, who got the Wildcats on the board first. With 12:46 left in the first, the 5-11, 219-pound running back scampered 23 yards to put Kentucky up 7-0.
"Pinner is a tough runner-- he's big, strong, and keeps his feet moving," said Johnson. "He got a lot of yards after the first hit. You've got to take your hat off to him. He's not leading the SEC in rushing for nothing."
Vanderbilt tied the score on a nicely executed 39-yard pass from Jay Cutler to senior tight end Tom Simone with 4:06 left in the first, but the Commodores' excitement was short-lived. Kentucky's Derek Abney, the league's most feared return man, returned Greg Johnson's kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to put the Wildcats up 14-7.
"We were trying to kick the ball out of the end zone," said Johnson. "We have a lot of confidence in Greg's leg. He just didn't quite get a hold of that one."
Soon afterwards Kentucky recovered a Jay Cutler fumble at the Vanderbilt 25, and scored three plays later on a one-yard leap by Pinner. On their next possession the Wildcats marched 73 yards on 10 plays, and Pinner picked up his third touchdown on a 16-yard run. With a 28-7 lead with 10:39 left in the half, Kentucky appeared to be in command.
Vanderbilt finally struck back with 11 seconds left in the first half. Cutler found Dan Stricker in the end zone, and Stricker made a one-handed grab that made the halftime score 28-14. The senior receiver had six catches for 98 yards on the day, and this catch gave him the school record for career touchdown receptions with 21.
Kentucky placekicker Taylor Begley attempted a 46-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but the snap was muffed, and Moses Osemwegie's tackle for loss gave Vanderbilt good field position at its 40. A 39-yard run by Kwane Doster gave Vandy a first-and-goal at the Cats' one-yard line. It took all four downs, but Cutler scored on a fourth-down sneak to cut Kentucky's lead to 28-21.
The Commodore offense had its last and best opportunity to score after freshman linebacker Herdley Harrison picked off a Jared Lorenzen pass and returned it to the Vandy 43. But the Commodores, forced by this time into a one-back set due to injuries to Tant and Doster, couldn't move and punted the ball to Kentucky with 4:30 left.
Running the ball behind Pinner, the Wildcats were able to make a number of crucial first downs and assemble a time-consuming 75-yard touchdown drive. Pinner's one-yard touchdown with 0:16 left assured the Wildcats of victory. The fumble recovery with no time left merely added insult to injury and stretched the final margin to 13 points.
It was Vanderbilt's third straight loss, and the third straight subpar performance by the offense. After moving the ball so well early in the season, the offense has now gained only 162 yards against Alabama, 267 against Florida, and 278 against the Wildcats.
The Commodore defense intercepted Lorenzen twice, but the turnover battle ended all even, as the Wildcats recovered two Vanderbilt fumbles.
The Commodores have one final chance for an SEC win in 2002. It comes next Saturday, as Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee (6-4, 3-3) at Nashville's downtown Coliseum. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. CST. The game will be televised regionally on the Jefferson-Pilot network.