By Zac Ellis
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The visiting media room in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium sits adjacent to the visiting locker room, an area that turned objectively rowdy on Saturday night. There, shouts and chants wafted out the doors as Vanderbilt players and coaches danced and bear-hugged in the wake of a 42-24 win over Tennessee. Amid a season of disappointment, the Commodores had managed to close with a win against their in-state rivals.
The audible celebration had not subsided by the time Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason arrived for his postgame press conference. Mason plopped behind a microphone, took a breath and gathered himself. “Wow,” he said, to no one in particular.
Asked to assess the impact of beating Tennessee, Mason smiled and gestured to the party beyond the wall to his right.
“When you hear that locker room next door,” Mason said, “you know exactly what’s going on.”
One week ago, Vanderbilt had little reason to celebrate. Its 3-0 start to 2017 had been erased by a streak of seven losses in the ensuing eight games. A once-promising season deflated, the Dores had only a road trip to Tennessee remaining on their schedule.
But against the Vols, the season’s early results didn’t matter. Vanderbilt made the most of an opportunity on Rocky Top, and it did so in convincing fashion.
“This football team finished the way we wanted to finish,” Mason said.
The matchup of programs with identical 0-7 SEC records looked like a shootout in early moments. Vanderbilt and Tennessee combined to score five touchdowns on the game’s first five drives before the Commodores – leading 21-14 – forced a UT punt midway through the season quarter. Vandy carried that same score into halftime.
Tennessee tacked on a field goal to cut it to 21-17 in the third quarter. Then, Vanderbilt scored the first of 21 straight points on a Kyle Shurmur touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield with 14:20 to play. With that, orange-clad fans began filing out of their Neyland Stadium seats in droves.
But despite Vanderbilt’s offense scoring 42 points, its defense was the difference-maker against Tennessee. The Vols looked dangerous in engineering drives of 75 and 85 yards to score their first 14 points, using a combined total of 160 yards of offense. But the same Commodore defense that had appeared lifeless in SEC play responded by limiting UT to just 78 yards the rest of the way.
THE POINT AFTER: Breaking down Vanderbilt win over Tennessee
“We ended up just buckling down and getting it done,” senior linebacker Oren Burks said.
That narrative has come to define Vanderbilt’s recent history with Tennessee. Vandy has now beaten its in-state rival in four of the past six meetings; it went 1-28 against UT from 1983-2011. The Commodores’ 18-point margin of victory stands as the program’s largest in Neyland Stadium since a 20-0 win in 1920. Moreover, Vanderbilt has now beaten UT in consecutive years for just the second time since 1926.
Tennessee, meanwhile, capped its first eight-loss season in program history.
“These seniors beat the University of Tennessee back-to-back,” Mason said. “Their legacy will be cemented, that’s for sure.”
Vanderbilt’s 20 seniors were one reason for the chip on its shoulder as it prepared to face Tennessee. Those seniors had been recognized prior to last week’s 45-17 loss to Missouri in Nashville. But that wasn’t how that group wanted to close their Commodore careers. Against Tennessee, Vanderbilt saw a chance to salvage the 2017 season.
“To send these seniors out with a win was probably the best thing we could’ve done,” safety LaDarius Wiley said. “You’re only as good as your last performance, but our last performance was a win.”
Of course, Mason and company remain far from satisfied. The Commodores aren’t likely to secure a bowl berth with a 5-7 record, which is a step back from last year’s six-win campaign and Independence Bowl appearance. They went from three SEC victories in 2016 to just one this fall. In short, Mason knows his work is far from finished at Vanderbilt.
But the Dores turned the visiting locker room at Neyland into a dance party for two reasons. First, to prove the program hadn’t lost sight of its ultimate goals in the SEC.
Second, because the spoils of Rivalry Week are oh-so-sweet.
“We own the state for another 364 days,” Burks said.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.