KNOXVILLE – Vanderbilt pulled out a 14-10 win Saturday night when a last-minute drive ended in a 5-yard game-winning touchdown by quarterback Patton Robinette. As a result, Tennessee will be denied the opportunity to go to a bowl for the third straight season.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
Freshman Joshua Dobbs was extremely one-dimensional. He helped out the run game with 11 carries for 50 yards, but the passing game was virtually non-existent. He threw for just 53 yards, 37 of which came on UT’s last-gasp drive when Vandy was playing soft coverage. Despite UT’s lack of any vertical passing game, the Vols still might’ve won if not for the pair of interceptions the freshman threw as well.
Running backs: B+
Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane were about all the offense had going. That duo combined for 148 yards and a touchdown on the ground to keep UT afloat throughout the contest. Neither was spectacular, but both got what they could and kept the chains moving for most of the night. Neal became the 14th Vol to rush for 2,000 yards in his career.
Wide receivers/tight ends: F
After freshman Marquez North went down on the first possession with an ankle injury, there was no production at this spot at all. Outside of catching a couple of quick hitters, this group was virtually useless. Josh Smith dropped another potential long gain and Jason Croom possibly could’ve prevented one of the Vandy INTs if he had made a stronger play on the ball. Even their blocking cost the Vols. A block in the back penalty on Howard took a Dobbs TD run off the board in the fourth quarter. Dobbs clearly struggled, but he got almost no help from these units.
Offensive line: C
There was some space in the run game and pass protection was decent. But still, Dobbs was sacked twice, including a costly 16-yard loss in the fourth quarter, and Tennessee couldn’t get any push on a crucial third and short situation on its second to last offensive drive that led to the punt that gave Vandy the ball with the opportunity to drive for the win. As has been the theme for much of the year, this group did some good things, but not enough to help an offensively-challenged team pull out a win.
Defensive line: B
After a three-game slump, this unit was better on Saturday. It still didn’t record any sacks for the fourth straight week, but the defensive front was much more active. Jacques Smith recovered a fumble, Marlon Walls and Danny O’Brien both recorded a tackle for loss and, in general, there was more pressure and not as many gaping holes in the run game.
A.J. Johnson was everywhere. He played arguably one of his best games as a Vol, recording 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, forced a fumbled and broke up a pass. Dontavis Sapp had a solid Senior Night performance with five stops, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. They were badly fooled on Vandy’s go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter when Robinette faked a jump pass, but that one play doesn’t undo an overall respectable effort.
Brian Randolph had an interception and a 41-yard return into Vandy territory in addition to a forced fumble. Devaun Swafford also forced a fumble. And while this group did a pretty good job containing Vandy for most of the night, it was very mistake-prone on Vandy’s final 92-yard drive. Twice Vanderbilt converted third and long situations and on one of them Swafford tacked on a 15-yard facemask penalty. With UT still able to hold Vandy to a potential game-tying field goal late in the fourth, star WR Jordan Matthews beat the D and made a spectacular 25-yard catch to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Special teams: D
A strong point earlier in the season has turned into a weakness in the final few games. There were glaring mistakes everywhere on Saturday. The normally-reliable Michael Palardy didn’t look like himself. He only averaged 37 yards per punt, missed one field goal and barely made the other after it bounced off the upright and in. His kickoffs weren’t as crisp either and the Commodores returned one for 71 yards. A fake field goal was a miserable failure after Palardy was intercepted on fourth and 18 on a throwback attempt to holder Tyler Drummer.
This one hurts Butch Jones and his staff. Even with a somewhat anemic offense, it looked like the Vols were going to find a way to get win No. 5 and set themselves up for a chance to reach a bowl with a win over Kentucky next week. But as has been the case so many times in recent year, the Vols came up short. Tennessee had every opportunity to take this one. Most of Vanderbilt’s secondary was out of the game due to injury or ejection, the ‘Dores were self-inflicting wounds all game and the Vols had two full weeks to prepare for an emotionally-charged Senior Night. There’s not much Jones can do except rally the team to play for pride at Kentucky and hit the recruiting trail in an effort to find the depth and overall talent the Vols are sorely missing.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga