Game recap: Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt
You keep playing until the clock hits zero. That philosophy paid off for Tennessee on Saturday night.
A bowl-bid-clinching 31-16 win over Vanderbilt would have had a much bigger squirm factor for an announced Neyland Stadium crowd of 100,124, had the Vols not been so efficient at using every tick of the clock.
Jonathan Crompton fired a touchdown pass to Luke Stocker with five seconds left in the first half.
Defensive tackle Wes Brown rumbled 25 yards with an interception return for his first career score with three seconds to play in the game.
Other than that, there wasn't much separating the Vols (6-5, 3-4 SEC) and the Commodores (2-10, 0-8).
But it was enough separation to gain that coveted sixth win and become bowl-eligible, a welcome development for a team that sat home last year after a 5-7 season.
"Icing on the cake,'' said UT linebacker Rico McCoy, one of the seniors who made his final ceremonial run through the "T.''
"It's a great feeling that I have two more games left instead of one.''
The Vols finish the regular season at Kentucky (7-4, 3-4) on Saturday night.
"We've busted our tail,'' said Brown. "We deserved to win and to get to a bowl game.
"We're going to try to get another win to get to a better bowl game.''
Brown's unexpected journey to the end zone wasn't the only memorable senior moment.
Montario Hardesty rushed 32 times for a career-high 171 yards and crossed the 1,000-yard plateau for the season.
His 5-yard touchdown on the game's opening drive made it 7-0.
Brown and fellow defensive tackle Dan Williams had sacks at opportune times.
McCoy, the only starting linebacker to survive the season, was everywhere plugging holes.
Jonathan Crompton clumped his two touchdown passes in a span of just over three minutes late in the first half as the Vols broke away from a 10-10 deadlock.
He hit Denarius Moore with an 11-yard score with 3:16 left in the half.
The defense stopped Vanderbilt on a fourth-down gamble at the Tennessee 38 with only 35 seconds left in the half.
The Vols had saved all three of their timeouts and used them with three consecutive Crompton completions - and a roughing-the-passer penalty on Vandy - to arrive at the Commdores' 16 with 10 seconds to go.
Crompton fired a bullet to Stocker in the end zone and Tennessee took a 24-10 lead into the break.
"Jonathan has played really well in the two-minute (offense) all year,'' head coach Lane Kiffin said.
"In hindsight," said Vandy coach Bobby Johnson, "we probably would have been better to punt it down there and go into the half down 17-10.
"They did a great job on that drive.''
But not great a job in the second half.
UT's offense never mounted another threat, leaving it to Brown to provide the coups de grace.
Vandy finished the season on an eight-game losing streak. The 16 points were a high for SEC play.
Mackenzi Adams flipped a 2-yard scoring pass to Ryan van Renburg in the second quarter, only the fifth TD scored by Vandy's offense in conference play.
Ryan Fowler contributed three field goals.
The second came after a Crompton interception in the third quarter.
The third followed a stubborn stand by Tennessee's battered defense.
The Commodores, trailing 24-13, drove for a first down at the UT 8 late in the fourth quarter.
Dennis Rogan intercepted an Adams pass in the end zone but his theft was nullified by a pass-interference flag.
That rewarded Vandy with a first down at the 2. On third-and-goal at the 5, Brown sacked Adams and got an intentional-grounding penalty in the bargain.
Fowler's field goal made it 24-16, a one-score game if the 'Dores could get a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Toward that end, they tried an onside kick, but UT's Bryce Brown recovered with 2:51 to play.
The Vols rode Hardesty to grind down the clock. Vandy got the ball back at its 25 with only 26 seconds to play.
And that's where Brown rose up and found his chronically aching knees churning toward the end zone with a football in his clutches.
"A dream come true,'' he said.
The Vols lost two more defensive starters along the way. Cornerback Art Evans was injured in the first half, linebacker Greg King in the second.
King was playing in place of LaMarcus Thompson, sidelined by a concussion in the Ole Miss game last week.
But they found a healthy kicker to replace Daniel Lincoln.
Devin Mathis, a walk-on making his collegiate debut, hit a 27-yard field goal in the first half, his only try.