KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Vanderbilt stood minutes away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time in 25 years and knocking its most bitter rival out of Southeastern Conference title contention on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
Instead of making history, it became just another spectacular collapse for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt blew a 24-9 fourth-quarter lead to Tennessee, as the Vols scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and added a Daniel Lincoln field goal with 2:46 left to provide UT with the final 25-24 margin.
VU's D.J. Moore returned the ensuing kickoff to the Vol 42 to give the Commodores a final chance to win. But the Vandy drive stalled at the UT 31, and Bryant Hahnfeldt missed a 49-yard field goal with 33 seconds left, moving Vanderbilt to 5-6 with just one game to play.
"We're better than Tennessee. We smacked them in the mouth every single play. You can watch the tape. They know it. They know they escaped," Vandy defensive tackle Gabe Hall said afterwards.
The Commodores raced to a 17-6 halftime lead behind two Mackenzi Adams touchdown passes—one to Brad Allen, another to Jeff Jennings—and a Bryant Hahnfeldt 33-yard field goal just before half. Hahnfeldt's field goal was set up when Patrick Benoist recovered Erik Ainge's lateral at the UT 26 and returned it to the Vol 16 with 29 seconds left in the first half.
Vandy then took the second-half kickoff and marched 73 yards to the UT 2, where George Smith caught a 2-yard pass in tight coverage from Adams to extend the VU lead to 15.
The Commodores held that lead late in the third quarter, when the Vols drove to the VU 44 and the Vandy defense forced a punt. Britton Colquitt launched a kick into the end zone, but VU's Broderick Stewart was flagged for a 15-yard roughing penalty, giving the Vols new life.
UT's Erik Ainge later found Lucas Taylor with a 7-yard scoring strike on the second play of the fourth quarter to cut the margin to 24-16 after Lincoln's extra point.
Vandy went three-and-out on its next two possessions. After the second, the Vols drove 83 yards in 2:58, scoring when Ainge hit Nashvillian Austin Rogers for another score.
But Ainge threw the ball out of the end zone on the 2-point conversion, keeping the VU lead at 24-22.
After two runs and an Adams incompletion to Alex Washington, Vandy's Brett Upson drilled a 53-yard punt that UT's Dennis Rogan fielded at the UT 22. The Commodores failed to contain Rogan, who weaved his way to the VU 33.
From there, the Vols needed just six plays and 17 yards to set up Lincoln's eventual game-winner.
Hahnfeldt missed what would have been a potential game-winning field goal on VU's final possession.
The game marked the third SEC game in which the Commodores have led, yet lost by seven points or less. Vandy did not commit a turnover and held the ball for 33:42 on the afternoon.
However, the Commodore offense gained just one first down in the entire fourth quarter, that one coming via penalty.
"We just gave up a couple of big plays, a couple things didn't go our way, [UT] fought hard and they came back, and it just didn't turn out the way it needed to today," Vandy defensive tackle Theo Horrocks, who blocked a Vol extra point, said.
The Commodores need a victory over Wake Forest in Nashville next weekend to get their sixth win next weekend. Vanderbilt beat the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem in their last meeting two seasons ago.