Tennessee (7-5, 5-3 SEC) hosted Vanderbilt (3-9, 1-7 SEC) in Neyland for the final game of the regular season, and the Volunteers came out on top with a decisive 28-10 victory in the rivalry game.
The game, which was held on a particularly rainy Saturday afternoon, was initially delayed by lightning.
When the game finally did get going, both teams started off slow at the outset. The early offensive struggles by both teams were not helped by numerous penalties on both sides.
Jarrett Guarantano got the ball first for Tennessee, but he threw a pick to Jaylen Mahoney on his second throw.
“Early in the game, the ball was wet. You could tell we didn’t throw the ball or catch the ball nearly as well,” Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt said at the postgame press conference.
Vanderbilt was unable to get anything going on offense, but the Commodores started their first drive in field goal range. They ended it with a 41-yard field goal by Ryley Guay that put Vanderbilt up 3-0.
Tennessee got on the board late in the first quarter when Eric Gray broke through the Vanderbilt defense and took it 56 yards to the end zone. Brent Cimaglia knocked the extra point through, and Tennessee took a 7-3 lead.
With the run game heating up, Tennessee began to move the ball with more consistency.
The Vols were able to extend their lead to 14-3 with a 6-yard scoring pass up the middle from Guarantano to Dom Wood-Anderson.
After the Vol defense stood tall once again, Tennessee started their next drive at their own 6-yard line. One play later Eric Gray ran untouched up the middle and all the way to the end zone for a 94-yard touchdown. Tennessee held the 21-3 lead into the half.
Vanderbilt’s offense got going in the third quarter. Early in the fourth, Commodore quarterback Riley Neal found Kalija Lipscomb in the corner of the end zone for a 22-yard scoring strike on third-and-long.
However, any fire that the Vanderbilt offense found was extinguished when the game was delayed by lightning for a second time with just over seven minutes left to play.
The remainder of the game was uneventful following the delay, and Tennessee defeated their in-state rival 28-10 when the clock ran out.
Freshman Eric Gray had a three-touchdown performance against Vanderbilt, and Pruitt discussed the freshman’s emergence in the game.
“Eric has plenty of ability,” Pruitt said. “Over the last couple weeks, he looked like his old self, had a little more pep in his step. It showed today.”
Part of Tennessee’s success on the ground should be credited to the offensive line, which has vastly improved its run blocking since the season began.
“Our offensive line blocked pretty well. Those guys were loading up the box,” Pruitt said.
The Vols have come a long way since losing their first two games to Georgia State and Bringham Young, but Pruitt pointed to an improvement in execution, not ability, to explain his team’s recent success.
“We played better as the season went, probably tackled better. I don’t know. There wasn’t no magic pill that we took,” Pruitt said. “We get one more opportunity to finish.”
Though the Vols are certainly out of the playoff picture, one more opportunity will come in the form of a bowl game. Stay tuned to TNJN coverage for more information on Tennessee’s postseason.
Edited by Ainsley Kelso and Ciera Noe
Featured image by Ben Gleason