Three years. 1,120 days. 26 straight SEC losses. A pandemic. A presidential change. A new head coach. All these things have happened since Vanderbilt got their last SEC win against #22 Missouri Tigers on October 19, 2019. But on November 12th, 2022, the streak that has been tormenting the Vanderbilt program, ceased. Vanderbilt went into a dreary, snowy Lexington, Kentucky for an 11am date with #24 Kentucky Wildcats and came out victorious. The Vanderbilt Commodores had exercised their demons and broke the streak as they left Lexington winners with a final score of 24-21.
Run Game and the “Grease Gang” Lead the Way
The Vanderbilt offense came into this week’s game with questions galore. AJ Swann would be out this week and quarterback Mike Wright would take over. The Vanderbilt offensive line was already thin at depth and was only getting thinner as injuries were mounting. Despite all the question marks, Vanderbilt had a goal of setting the tone, and they would do this with the run game.
After a tough turnover on the first possession (which was not a turnover), Mike Wright came out and did what he does best: run. On 2nd & 8 from the Vanderbilt 41, Mike Wright decided to do it himself, and he ran the ball for a 59-yard touchdown that helped Vanderbilt take an early 7-3 lead.
The run game did not stop with that one play. It only got better as Ray Davis continued his tear and toted the ball 26 times for 129 yards and a touchdown. Davis seemingly could not be stopped as he ran for an average of 5 yards a touch behind an offensive line that was moving the Kentucky offensive line with ease all game long. Mike Wright decided to join the fun as he scampered for 126 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Coach AJ Blazek and the offensive line had one of their best performances of the season despite being undermanned. Not only were they dominant in the run game, but they were also impressive in pass pro. Quarterback Mike Wright attempted 23 throws and the “Grease Gang” only allowed one sack all game.
Despite success on the ground, Vanderbilt would have to air it out if they wanted to win this game. Everyone knows that Wright can get it done with his legs, but could he get it done with his arm, as well? When it mattered the most, he could. Despite only completing 12 passes on 23 attempts, Wright made throws when it counted, and there are two that stand out. On a 4th & 11, Vanderbilt found themselves trailing 21-17 with time running out. When the ‘Dores needed it the most, Wright delivered a 40-yard ball to a blossoming Quincy Skinner Jr. down to the Kentucky 9-yard line; a pass and catch that will go down in Vanderbilt football lore. Then, the play of the game happened when Mike Wright completed a touchdown pass to sud wide receiver Will Sheppard to put the ‘Dores on top.
Defense Makes a Statement
The Vandy defense was charged with the tough task of going up against a solid run game and a projected 1st round quarterback in Will Levis and before they knew it, they were immediately thrown into the fire. After a turnover on Vanderbilt’s first possession, Kentucky was starting from the Vanderbilt 29-yard line. After a run for no gain, and two straight incomplete passes, the Vanderbilt defense had passed their first test and held Kentucky to only a field goal after being put in a precarious position.
This sort of defensive effort did not stop the rest of the game. The Vanderbilt defense continually got stops on third down and continued to give the Kentucky offense and Levis fits. The Vanderbilt front had one of its best performances yet. DC Nick Howell decided to pressure Will Levis, and it worked. Vanderbilt was causing Levis to get uncomfortable in the pocket and make errant throws all game long. The Vanderbilt front was able to get home on Levis four times during the game. Thanks to pressure from the Vanderbilt front, Vandy held Levis to 109 yards passing despite throwing it 23 times. Good pressure up front with solid play from the secondary caused Levis to go 2-10 for 18 yards in the second half.
Kentucky, as usual, has an impressive run game led by running back Chris Rodriguez. The Vanderbilt defense was able to limit Rodriguez for most of the game. Rodriguez made Vanderbilt pay on a long run of 72 yards but if you take away that run, then Rodriguez only ran for 90 yards. Nevertheless, a complete effort from the Vanderbilt defense helped carry the team to victory.
There are many things that you can question regarding this team. Poor defensive play, and suspect play calling, but one thing that cannot be questioned about this Vanderbilt team is their grit. There have been a few games this year where Vanderbilt could roll over and quit like we have seen numerous teams do in the past but they haven’t.
After Rodriguez had ripped off his big, 72-yard run for the go-ahead score, it was easy to say that the game was over. After all, we have seen this movie before many times. But this team surprised many of us, including myself. They continued to fight and scratch and claw, and this time… breakthrough. After many Saturdays that end in heartbreak, Vanderbilt finally broke through as they defeated #24 Kentucky by a final score of 24-21.