Game recap: UT 24 vs. Vanderbilt 10
AP Top 25 College Football
NASHVILLE - The game within a game Saturday night seemed to revolve around which team could make the most mistakes. Call it a dead heat.
Tennessee won the game on the scoreboard, outlasting Vanderbilt 24-10 before an orange-hued crowd of 37,017 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Tennessee's third consecutive victory improved the Vols to 5-6, 2-5 SEC, although, artistically, it fell far short of the wins over Memphis and Ole Miss the past two weeks.
Tauren Poole's 28-yard touchdown run with 1:22 to play put the finishing touch on a sloppy, error-prone contest that saw both teams sabotaged by turnovers.
Each side also had a touchdown wiped out by a penalty.
"We didn't look like us in a lot of areas,'' said UT coach Derek Dooley.
"You're gonna have games like that in a season. The key is finding a way to gut it out and we did that.''
And in doing so the Vols kept their hopes of bowl eligibility alive headed into the regular-season finale against Kentucky next Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium.
A victory would send Tennessee, at 6-6, back to Nashville to play in the Music City Bowl, according to prevailing SEC bowl scenario speculation.
"We're not going to come back here if we don't beat Kentucky,'' Dooley said.
"If we play the way we did today, we'll get beat 50 to nothing by Kentucky.''
The Vols gave away three turnovers - one, inevitably, on a muffed punt return - and were hit with an uncharacteristic nine penalties.
The most costly one wiped seven points off the scoreboard.
Gerald Williams intercepted a Vanderbilt pass in the third quarter and rumbled about 75 yards for an apparent touchdown.
The play came back, though, because Malik Jackson was flagged for a personal foul, a late hit on quarterback Larry Smith.
Two scores that didn't come back were Tyler Bray touchdown passes in the first half.
He found Justin Hunter for a 15-yard score in the first quarter and Denarius Moore for 20 yards in the second.
But he also threw two interceptions.
"I knew it was a game that was going to be harder for him (than Memphis or Ole Miss), because it required a lot of decision-making,'' Dooley said.
Daniel Lincoln's 28-yard field goal in the fourth quarter gave the Vols a 17-3 lead to protect.
And they did, barely.
The Commdores (2-9, 1-7) completed an apparent touchdown pass that was wiped out by a penalty because receiver Jordan Matthews stepped out of bounds on his route, then came back in to make the catch.
Moments later Janzen Jackson's interception at the 2 and 42-yard return with just under six minutes left preserved the 14-point lead.
Not for long. Back-up quarterback Jared Funk marched Vandy 74 yards, hitting Matthews for a 16-yard touchdown pass. UT's lead was cut to 17-10 with 2:33 to play.
Tennessee recovered an onside kick and managed to spring Poole for the clinching touchdown on a fourth-and-2 play.
Tennessee led 14-3 at the half and blew a chance to add to it in a scoreless third quarter.
It was a miserable period for the Vols, with two turnovers, five penalties and the nullified touchdown.
When Anthony Anderson became the latest Vol to muff a punt return early in the third quarter, Vandy took over at the Tennessee 20.
Two plays later, defensive end Williams intercepted a Vandy pass and had clear sailing for the touchdown that might have been a knockout punch.
However, the flag brought it back.
The Vols got no points and Vanderbilt kept the ball at the UT 11. When Ryan Fowler missed a 25-yard field goal, the score stayed 14-3.
Bray then threw his second interception of the game. This time the Commodores marched into UT territory only to see Williams block a Fowler field-goal attempt from 45 yards.
Tennessee drove for a first down at the Vandy 12 but came away with only Lincoln's three points with 12:57 to play.
The first half saw Tennessee dominate until Vanderbilt claimed momentum in the final five minutes with a crucial turnover, a methodical march and a Fowler field goal as time expired.
Bray was sharp passing in the half, directing a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives.
Bray finished his third start at 16-of-27 passing for 232 yards.
The Vols managed 360 yards of offense and only 128 of that came running the ball.
"We just stink at running the ball,'' said Dooley.
Poole finished at 99 yards, one short of becoming the first Vol to rush for 100 yards seven times in a season.
He'll get another shot against Kentucky.
Vandy warmed up in the fourth quarter against a tiring UT defense to finish with 333 yards.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 865-342-6276 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.