NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Those who came to play did so with a purpose. And they left everything they had on Dudley Field at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday in the final home game of a trying and unimaginable season.
Vanderbilt lost 42-17 to rival Tennessee to fall to 0-9 on the season. That doesn’t nearly tell the entire story of a team that could have easily said thanks, but no thanks, to the challenge that lay ahead of them.
“I think the guys that we have here were the guys that wanted to finish what we started and wanted to end this thing the right way,” Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals, a freshman, said. “I told them this week, ‘We’re here because we still have an opportunity to make everything worth it. We can go out and everything that we’ve had to deal with, all the difficulties and obstacles that we’ve faced and everything that we’ve lost as a team, we still have chances to go out and make these last couple games worth it and make all of it worth it.’
“I think the guys that we have here now were determined and motivated to go do that. I’m proud of all the guys who were here playing with me today.”
There’s no question a 25-point defeat at home against a most-bitter rival is anything to write home about.
But consider the Commodores had less than 70 student-athletes available for the final home game of a season being played in a pandemic.
Consider 18 young men on athletic scholarship put on the black and gold uniform and took the field to play defense.
Consider that freshman defensive back De’Rickey Wright unexpectedly and tragically lost his 35-year old mother Monday.
Consider the Commodores are playing for an interim head coach these final weeks of the regular season.
“I just really feel for our seniors,” that interim coach Todd Fitch said. “Last home game, and I thought the guys were competing as hard as they could out there. We were short on numbers at about 49 scholarship players. Our depth on defense was really, really short, but I thought the guys mentally were in-tuned and battled. We didn’t play well enough and, obviously. Give Tennessee credit.”
In between the lines Saturday, the action got off to a slow start for both teams. And when Tennessee went up 7-0 nine minutes into the opening period, one would have thought the writing was on the wall.
But the Dores responded.
Led by Seals at quarterback and a young offensive group, Vandy marched 75 yards on 12 plays and knotted the score on a 18-yard pass from Seals to Cam Johnson. Sarah Fuller, a senior goalkeeper for Vanderbilt who joined the program last month, trotted out and kicked the extra point.
There was an apparent new energy on the home sideline.
“The guys were super pumped-up and encouraging,” Fuller said of her opportunity make history yet again. “So I was very excited to get out there and do what I’ve been training for the past few weeks. At the end of the day, they’ve treated me like an athlete and that’s the best I could ask for.”
Moments later a strip by senior Andre Mintze and a recovery by senior Cameron Tidd had the Commodores feeling good. That turnover led directly to a Pierson Cooke 39-yard field goal with 12:03 to go in the second quarter.
Outmanned and outnumbered, Vanderbilt had a 10-7 lead.
“We’re short-handed, there’s no doubt about that. And really it affected us on both lines of scrimmage,” Fitch said. “But we wanted to play this game. We’re not looking to duck out of it or anything. The players wanted to play this game and it’s something that we had good preparation for. I was proud of the effort level over the most part of the game.”
The rest of the tale, truthfully, does not have a happy ending.
Bryson Thompson returned a pick-6 four minutes after Cooke’s field goal to put Tennessee up 14-10 and the Volunteers never looked back. Three straight Tennessee touchdowns later and the visitors had built an insurmountable 35-10 lead.
Vandy didn’t fold. Seals found Ben Bresnahan on a 16-yard touchdown pass to get the Dores within 35-17. Nineteen seconds later Velus Jones Jr. took a 74-yard touchdown pass to the house to permanently deflate the Vanderbilt balloon.
“I thought we had the right mindset and attitude coming into the game, stuck together – but physically just couldn’t pull it together,” Seals said.
Vanderbilt is scheduled to face No. 12 Georgia (7-2, 7-2 SEC) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday the regular-season finale for both teams. But the next time the Commodores play in Nashville it will be for a new coach in a new season in a new calendar year.
This team certainly won’t be remembered for its win-loss record. But perhaps as time passes those who watched the final 60 minutes at Vanderbilt Stadium in 2020 will remember a squad who made a choice to play despite the unthinkable challenges placed before them.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.