There was actually some level of excitement from Commodore Nation heading into Vanderbilt’s final home game of the season against Kentucky, at least as much excitement as there could be for a 2-7 team. The university released the long-awaited renderings of their 300-million-dollar project on Friday giving fans some sense of hope for the future. It was senior night. It was also designated the “blackout” game where the Commodores would unveil their slick brand-new uniforms for the contest. Maybe the 21-point underdogs could give the Wildcats a game?
The answer was no. Kentucky ended the suspense early in a 34-17 win over the Commodores on a chilly evening in front of a mostly blue crowd of 25,798. The game was never competitive, and the loss now brings Vandy’s SEC losing streak to 19 games.
Quarterback Ken Seals returned after a three-game absence due to a hand injury to reclaim his starting spot from Mike Wright. After Vandy’s drive stalled on the game’s first possession, the Commodore defense once again allowed their opponent to score on the opening drive for the ninth straight game as the Wildcats marched down the field with ease for a quick 7-0 lead.
The Commodores managed a field goal for a 7-3 score after the first quarter, but Kentucky took complete control of the game in the second quarter outscoring Vandy 24-0 to take a commanding 31-3 halftime lead.
Seals struggled in his return, with a horrible pick-six on a busted screen play contributing to Kentucky’s lead. He was also hit multiple times and appeared to suffer an injury on a sack late in the first half opening the door for Mike Wright to take over in the second half. Seals would finish 12 of 17 for 87 yards and the one costly interception in his one-half of work.
“We’re not at the point is a program where we can have turnovers go for touchdowns and overcome that,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said after the game. “I want to give Kentucky a lot of credit. … I think our coaches did a good job of identifying areas that we needed to be focused on. But we missed in the translation from the focus to the execution, and that is accountability across the board, starting with me.”
On defense, the Commodores offered little resistance to the Wildcats in the first half. Quarterback Will Levis completed his first eight passes for 142 yards, most of those catches by their outstanding receiver Wan’Dale Robinson who was also the recipient of Kentucky’s first touchdown.
The defense didn’t fare any better against the run as Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. gashed the Commodores for 90 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown in the first half. The Wildcats scored on their first four drives of the game, before throwing an interception into the endzone on a hail mary to end the half (which left Vandy fans holding their breath after the previous game against Missouri).
Levis finished the game an efficient 14 of 22 for 177 yards with two touchdowns and the interception before the half. Robinson had all his yardage in the first half, finishing with 75 yards on six catches and a touchdown. Rodriguez would finish the game with 114 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown.
If you’re looking for a silver lining from a Commodore perspective, you can look to the second half which played out much differently than the first. With Wright taking over at quarterback, Vandy outscored the Wildcats 14-3 after halftime to make the final score somewhat respectable. Fans can debate how much of that was due to the quarterback change, how much was a result of coaching adjustments, and how much was simply Kentucky taking its foot off the gas with a huge lead. There is probably merit to all three, but there isn’t any question Wright outplayed Seals. The offense looked much more fluid dynamic in the last frame. After Vandy shot itself in the foot with multiple pre-snap penalties in the first half, the offensive unit played penalty-free in the second half.
Wright got to work quickly, leading the Commodores to a 12 play 72-yard drive on their first possession of the second half culminating in a touchdown pass to Chris Pierce.
On the ensuing drive, after a Kentucky field goal, Wright directed the Commodores to an 11 play 75-yard drive the ended with another touchdown pass – this one caught by the long-forgotten senior Amir Adur-Rahim, seeing his first significant playing time of the season with starter Will Sheppard missing the game with an illness. Abdur-Rahim made the most of his opportunity, finishing with a game-high seven receptions for 65 yards and the touchdown. Fellow senior Chris Pierce finished with six receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.
After a slow start, Commodore freshman running back Patrick Smith got going in the second half rushing for 46 yards on nine carries. He would finish the game with 84 yards on 18 carries.
Wright finished his half of playing time completing 7 of 11 passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the second-leading rusher with 20 yards on seven carries. While Vandy was too far behind for Wright to make a serious game out of it, his performance does present Coach Lea with an interesting quarterback dilemma for the final two games.
“I’m very proud of the way Mike Wright prepared himself,” Lea said. “Both guys need to prepare as the starter, and Mike’s a guy who has done a really nice job for us and didn’t play in the first half and came out in the second half and strengthened the other 10 players on the field and did a nice job leading the offense. So I think that’s where I would focus right now: just being pleased with the way Mike finished the game. We’re going to get a feel for what Ken’s injury is, what the extent of it is, and we’ll figure out the best way to be competitive next week as we go.”
Vanderbilt now sits at 2-8 with games at Ole Miss and Tennessee to finish the season.