The Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in Nashville on Saturday afternoon. The play was not pretty for long stretches for either team, but Vanderbilt's defense continued its strong play this season. The win gives Vandy its second SEC victory of the season; meanwhile, the Commodores reach four wins and keep their bowl hopes alive for another week. Kentucky, on the other hand, has now lost five straight games, and for the second consecutive season is suffering a late-season tailspin.
The first half was marked by the outstanding play of Vanderbilt's defense. On three separate occasions, Kentucky's offense marched the field to the red zone. UK's offense has scored touchdowns on 61 percent of its trips to the red zone this season, but the strong Commodore defense held UK to three points in those three trips. One was a fourth-and-goal stand while another was a Patrick Towles interception in the end zone.
Vandy's excellent first half defensive performance would continue, with the Dores forcing a fumble on the UK 5-yard line, which subsequently led to a Kyle Shurmur to fullback Kyle Anderton touchdown reception. Later in the first half, after UK had benched starting quarterback Towles in favor of back-up Drew Barker, Vandy safety Oren Burks would pick off a Barker pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. Vandy's front seven added six tackles for loss as well.
Those two forced turnovers and red-zone stands, as well as a trick play touchdown pass to Caleb Scott, gave Vanderbilt a 21-10 lead at the half. Kyle Shurmur would go 13-of-26 passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns. 87 of those passing yards would go to Scott, who averaged 30 yards per reception Saturday night.
The second half started more listlessly. UK's defense began selling out against the run, and won most man-to-man match-ups on moderate-to-deep pass plays against Vanderbilt's receivers. Running back Ralph Webb picked up most of his 133 yards on 33 carries in the third quarter, as UK's defense grew tired and the Vandy offensive line started to control the line of scrimmage. Ultimately, penalties and inconsistent execution largely kept Vanderbilt behind the chains, preventing points and seizing a commanding lead.
That still proved to be more than enough. Vanderbilt's offense may have only picked up 8.18 yards per possession, but it continually pinned UK's offense deep in its own territory. UK's boom-or-bust offense was unlikely to habitually beat Vandy's defense when faced with a long field, although the 'Cats came close. Running back Stanley "Boom" Williams rushed for 113 yards on 13 carries, including a big 53-yard run late in the third quarter, which led to a Jojo Kemp touchdown. That touchdown pulled UK within four points. On the following drive, UK's offense drove the length of the field again, but missed a field goal after a delay of game penalty. UK's offense would finish the game with 352 yards, but two turnovers, a missed field goal and Vandy's red-zone defense may as well have wiped out 150 of those yards.
If UK partisans are looking for a silver lining. the defense played well aside from the systemic failure on Vandy's first-half trick play. Heading late into the fourth quarter, UK's defense had forced three straight three-and-outs on Vandy's offense, but the offense wasn't able to capitalize. That's probably little solace to UK's players, as they are experiencing another late-season collapse. Next week's game against Charlotte, the worst team in the FBS, looks to be a victory, but the last game is against in-state rival Louisville. Last season UofL beat UK over Thanksgiving weekend preventing the 'Cats from going bowling. At the moment, history is poised to repeat itself.
Vanderbilt's next game is at home versus Texas A&M, and they finish the season in Knoxville. It will be a difficult path to a bowl berth, but Vandy's defense should give the Commodores a fighting chance in both games. If the offense can become anywhere close to average then those games would be interesting. If in fact the rumors are true, and a five-win SEC team can make a bowl, Vandy deserves to go if the Commodores can win one of the next two games. That defense deserves to run free and dominate well into December.