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Tennessee Stat Book
Saturday night found Tennessee with considerable unfinished business to address at Neyland Stadium.
Among the agendas on the table:
Could the Vols stay in the hunt for a bowl?
Could they finally claim their first SEC win of the season?
Could they survive Vanderbilt’s transformation from traditional doormat to late-season force?
The answer — thumbs-up.
In a game defined by turnovers, Tennessee won 27-21 on the biggest of the night, Eric Gordon’s 90-yard interception return in overtime.
“We went out there and just gritted out a win,” said coach Derek Dooley.
“It was a big step for our program to be able to take one in the fourth quarter and find a way to win.”
Quarterback Tyler Bray played for the first time since he suffered a fractured thumb on Oct. 8 and re-energized the Tennessee offense with two touchdown passes to Da’Rick Rogers.
The second, a 2-yard connection with Rogers with 6:27 to play, tied the score 21-21 and broke a streak of five games in which Tennessee had failed to score in the second half.
The Vols are 5-6 and can become bowl eligible with a win at Kentucky to close the season.
They also are 1-6 in SEC play, the latest UT has gone into a season before notching a league victory.
Bray was 16-of-33 for 189 yards passing. He also energized the Vanderbilt defense by throwing two interceptions that led to touchdowns, one of them a 100-yard return for a score by Archibald Barnes in the third quarter.
“You could blame it on the rust,” said Bray, “but it was me throwing it to the other team.”
But Gordon produced the biggest turnover of them all.
Regulation ended 21-21. Tennessee won the toss and elected to start overtime on defense.
Vanderbilt made one first down and on third-and-6 at the 11, junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers threw to his right for Wesley Tate.
Gordon picked off the pass and raced all the way to the south end zone, touching off a wild celebration for the crowd announced at 91,367 and the Tennessee players who swarmed into the end zone.
“Words can’t describe it,” said the sophomore from Nashville.
The officials, however, first ruled that Gordon had recovered a fumble and that his knee was down.
Television replays showed that wasn’t the case. The play was reviewed and ruled a touchdown.
So Tennessee celebrated again.
“We’ve got one more game,” said Dooley, “but we got off the snide tonight.”
Turnovers touched nearly every phase of the game. There were four by Vandy (5-6, 2-6) and two by Tennessee.
Rod Wilks’ fumble recovery and 25-yard return in the first quarter facilitated a short Tennessee drive for a 1-yard touchdown run by Tauren Poole and a 7-0 lead.
The Commodores got even in the second quarter when Barnes made his first interception and returned it 28 yards to the Tennessee 6.
On the next play, Zac Stacy burst into the end zone.
UT linebacker Austin Johnson made his fourth interception in five games, but the Vols weren’t able to capitalize.
Bray was sharp in a second-quarter drive that covered 80 yards and ended in a 17-yard touchdown pass to Rogers, who used his size to shield the ball from defender Trey Wilson at the goal line.
The Vols led 14-7 at the half but penalties, mistakes and short punts conspired to keep them in bad field position.
Their one promising drive in the third quarter reached the Vandy 3 before Barnes made his second interception at the goal line and went the length of the field to make it 14-14.
UT’s poor kicking game left Vanderbilt only 35 yards to cover for the go-ahead score.
The payoff came on a 20-yard, third-down pass from Rodgers to Chris Boyd. The Commodores had their first lead, 21-14, with 12:21 to play.
The Vols answered with an 80-yard drive that ended with Bray’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Rogers on fourth-and-goal.
Only it first ended with Michael Palardy missing a 23-yard field goal. Vandy’s Sean Richardson was penalized for running into Palardy.
It wasn’t an automatic first down, but moved the ball from the 5 to the 2.
This time Dooley decided to go for six.
“I couldn’t put the field-goal team out there again after that (bad kick),” he said.
So Bray found Rogers on a fade route for the touchdown and it was 21-21.
Vanderbilt drove into Tennessee territory in the final minute of regulation but Prentiss Waggner’s interception with 20 seconds on the clock nullified the threat and the game went to overtime.
Tennessee is 10-3 in overtime games.
The 2010 season ended in an overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl, the second game of the season in which an official’s ruling put time back on the clock in games the Vols appeared to have won.
Had the final ruling not been overturned, Gordon’s touchdown would have been disallowed and Tennessee would have had to score on its overtime possession to win.
“I don’t care how this happened,” Dooley said, “but we got one.”
They got one against Vanderbilt for the 28th time in the past 29 years.
They got one despite losing both starting safeties, Brian Randolph and then Waggner, during regulation.
They got one a week after being embarrassed 49-7 at Arkansas.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a football team in all my years,” Dooley said.
“The adversity these guys have gone through and what happened last week, I know nobody was expecting us to come out and do much.”
Follow Mike Strange at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.