KNOXVILLE – It looked, for a moment, like Tennessee was going to pull it off.
Needing a win to extend their chances of getting to a bowl game this season, the Vols were beginning to celebrate a win over Vanderbilt when they stopped the Commodores on fourth and 1 with 48 seconds remaining at the UT 34.
But there was a review.
Instant replay advanced the spot of the ball 1 yard and the Commodores’ drive continues. A pass to star receiver Jordan Matthews, who became the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions during the game, got Vandy inside the 10. Two plays later, backup QB Patton Robinette, a native of nearby Maryville, Tenn., faked a jump pass and ran 5 yards around right end for the game-winning score.
The Vols managed to advance the ball to midfield on the final drive with just seconds remaining, but a last-second desperation pass was batted away in the end zone, sealing the 14-10 win for Vanderbilt. It is the first time since 1925-26 that Vanderbilt has knocked Tennessee off in consecutive seasons.
“We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” said senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood, who was one of 27 seniors honored on Senior Night Saturday.
Of course that one fourth-down spot wasn’t the only thing that cost UT the game. But that moment felt like a microcosm of a frustrating career for a group of UT seniors who have seen it all.
“It came down to a number of plays,” said a frustrated coach Butch Jones. “We had thought there was a delay of game earlier in the drive. It is a game of inches. We always talk about that. The inches got us a little bit today. I am proud of our football team and our senior class."
Jones also declined comment on the officiating. Video replay appeared to show that Vandy quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels converted the first down on the controversial play in the fourth quarter, though spot calls are rarely overturned on QB sneaks due to the bunched-up nature of those plays and the lack of conclusive evidence.
A sloppy game set up the back-and-forth finish.
Two teams generally known for avoiding too many self-inflicted wounds combined for seven turnovers and 12 penalties on the night. Among the most costly were a 15-yard facemask on defensive back Devaun Swafford on Vandy’s final drive that moved the Commodores into UT territory and a block in the back on receiver Pig Howard that nullified a Dobbs rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Howard’s penalty set up a field goal attempt for UT. Jones rolled the dice and called a fake field goal on fourth and 18. A pass from kicker Michael Palardy was intercepted by Vandy, ending the scoring threat and keeping the lead at 10-7 for UT.
“That was big,” Jones said of Howard’s penalty. “It took seven points off the board and that was a critical play. I just felt that we needed seven points in that possession.”
Now all Tennessee has to play for is pride as the Vols will travel to Lexington next week to wrap up the season at Kentucky. There will be no postseason for the third straight season. This class of seniors will leave Knoxville with the worst losing percentage of any four-year senior class in the modern era of UT football.
The losses have piled up. There won’t be much of a redemptive ending.
“You have 28 seniors who have given everything to this football program,” Jones said. “Yeah it is emotional because you put a lot of effort and work into it. I feel for these kids who have done everything we have asked of them. Unfortunately we came up short today. We have one more game left as a football team and a football program to get better.
“They are resilient and will come back but I feel for them because of all the things they have been through."
• Tennessee freshman Marquez North left the game with an ankle injury after the first possession and didn't return.
• Without North, the Vols had their worst passing day since 2008, finishing with just 53 yards passing and two interceptions. "I think it was a combination of a lot of things," Jones said. "I think sometimes everything points to the quarterback, but I think some of the routes on the perimeter- I will have to watch the film to really comment further on that, but a couple times I didn't really think we were crisp on the perimeter.
"It is a combination of all 11 people working together. The things he needs to correct moving forward, again, is on 3rd downs not throwing the football away and not getting negative yardage football plays."
• Senior kicker/punter Michael Palardy had perhaps his worst game of the year as well. He averaged just 37 yards per punt, made 1 of 2 field goals (his one make hit the upright and bounced in) and the Vols gave up a 71-yard kickoff return.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga