Bluegrass Blissby Chad Bishop
Vandy snaps long SEC losing streak with comeback win at Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The weather was, at times, miserable. The play on the field was often miserable.
But in the end, it was one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
Mike Wright’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Will Sheppard with 32 seconds left in the game gave Vanderbilt a 24-21 victory at No. 24 Kentucky, breaking all sorts of long losing streaks for the Commodores on a gray and frozen day on Kroger Field.
“Really emotional. It’s been a grind. It’s been a real grind,” Vandy senior Gavin Schoenwald said. “And I’m just really proud of everybody that stuck here after the coaching change and then stuck here again after the tough year last year. Half our team is first-year guys in our program. This is just the beginning.
“This is just a taste of the success to come in the future, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.”
Schoenwald had gathered his teammates in a huddle near midfield during pregame warmups. He delivered an impassioned speech to the Dores about what the day could be, what the day should be.
Schoenwald, a fifth-year senior who has been a part of all the program’s 28 straight defeats to Power 5 opponents, 26 straight losses to SEC teams and 16 straight SEC road defeats, was hit with strong emotion in the most celebratory of all celebratory locker rooms.
“Obviously, the conditions were wild,” Schoenwald said of the snow and the rain and the wind and the cold. “We had a bunch of fun in warmups and just felt like we were really wanting to be there. Sometimes in those games, teams aren’t. I’m not saying Kentucky wasn’t, but we sure as hell were.
“I’m just really really proud of the guys. They brought it. Set the tone from the start. Just awesome.”
How Vandy pulled off this win was somewhat emblematic of what had transpired to this point. So many defeats, some lopsided and some heartbreaking, would have made a different team lie down.
But, as second year Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea, who battled the flu all week, told the team in the locker room after the game, a “normal team” wouldn’t keep fighting when “called back into the fire.”
“These moments we will always remember,” Lea said. “No one will ever be able to take this from us.”
The Commodores (4-6, 1-5 SEC) led for most of the game Saturday until Kentucky took a 15-14 lead with 2:59 left in the third quarter. Vandy got a 26-yard field goal to take the lead at 17-15 with just less than six minutes to play.
It took Kentucky all of 19 seconds to take that wind out of Vanderbilt’s sails: Chris Rodriguez ran 72 yards to the house on his way to giving the Wildcats a 21-17 lead.
That gave Wright & Co. five minutes and three seconds of game clock to figure out a way to orchestrate the drive of all drives.
Vandy was aided by a personal foul on Kentucky on a fourth down at its own 37. On another fourth-down play, this one at midfield, Wright completed a somewhat miraculous pass down the right sideline to a falling Quincy Skinner.
Two plays later, at the Kentucky 9, Wright hit a streaking and wide-open Sheppard for the game winner.
“There’s belief there,” Lea said of his team’s response to trailing late. “I think this group is learning that they’re a good team when they play good. They have to just stick with that belief, step into it every snap.
“(That run) gave our offense a chance to respond. And they did.”
Despite two egregious mistakes in the first half, Vanderbilt found itself up 7-6 going into the locker room.
Sheppard had fumbled away possession on the Commodores’ second play from scrimmage. And later in the first quarter, Wright threw an ill-advised deep ball into the Kentucky end zone that was picked off.
But the Vandy defense was inspired and unflappable. It held the Wildcats to three field goal attempts, and one of those kicks was blocked by defensive tackle Nate Clifton.
Kentucky had just 147 yards of offense in the first half and, despite driving into Vanderbilt territory on all four of its drives, was held to only six points.
“Early, we were forcing field goals—which is a win for the defense and a win for the team,” Lea said. “To be able to block one of those field goals, too, is a testament to the character and the toughness of that group. The defense set a tone for us today.”
Vanderbilt roared out to start the third quarter and didn’t let up. A defensive stop turned possession over and led to a 10-play, 81-yard drive that chewed up six minutes of clock. Running back Ray Davis capped the drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge, giving the visitors a 14-6 lead.
The Wildcats, however, got a field goal with 3:42 left in the third quarter and their first touchdown of the game with 11:14 left in the game—that score came by virtue of Vanderbilt turning the ball over on downs on the Kentucky 34.
That set the stage for the final and dramatic fourth quarter—a fourth quarter for the ages in the Bluegrass State—that ended with CJ Taylor’s interception of Kentucky quarterback Will Levis’ desperation heave down the field as time expired.
“I’m happy for this team, I’m happy for everybody out on this field right now,” Vandy senior Ben Bresnahan said. “We have been grinding, we have been working, we’ve been staying toward the process that Coach Lea has been showing us. It’s amazing to see that pay off.”
- Vanderbilt finished with 264 yards rushing, its most against an SEC since totaling 281 yards against Mississippi on Sept. 17, 2011.
- Vandy had two 100-yard rushers Davis (129) and Wright (126) for the first time since Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame did so in Oct. 22, 2016 against Tennessee State.
- Clifton’s field goal block in the second quarter was Vanderbilt’s first blocked field goal since Cameron Tied blocked an East Tennessee State attempt Nov. 23, 2019.
- Vanderbilt opponents are now 7-for-20 on fourth down this season.
- The Commodores are now 27-for-30 in the red zone this season.
- Vandy now trails the all-time series against Kentucky 43-48-4.
- Attendance on Saturday was announced as 57,474.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.