It wasn’t the 40-0 blowout last year in Lexington, but a 13-point fourth quarter separated Vanderbilt from the Kentucky Wildcats in a 22-6 victory to make the Commodores bowl eligible.
Like last week against Florida, the Commodores were out-gained in yardage for most of the game, but four interceptions (now 16 in the past four games) proved to be too much for Kentucky to overcome.
The intriguing storyline of the game was that quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels had his first start since the Georgia game nearly a month ago. He wasn’t listed on the depth chart at all this week with a left knee injury.
“He’s been working for us the past couple weeks, but he got cleared to go today,” said head coach James Franklin. “We just felt with his experience and the amount of games he’s played that we were going to get on the field. We basically made that decision in pregame warm ups.”
Carta-Samuels passed well, going 3-3 for 23 yards on his first drive, but running back Brian Kimbrow fumbled a snap in the Wildcat formation, and a sack forced a Vanderbilt punt.
Kentucky didn’t take long to put the first points on the board. Their run-heavy offense only featured two passes, as quarterback Jalen Whitlow and running backs Raymond Sanders and Jojo Kemp picked up 52 yards on 10 carries. Kemp capped the drive off with a 2-yard score.
Vanderbilt’s defense stepped up on the PAT, though. Defensive tackle Adam Butler blocked Joe Mansour’s kick, which Steven Clarke returned the entire length of the field for a 2-points defensive conversion. That would be a theme all night: the defense coming to the rescue
With Kentucky facing second-and-ten late in the first quarter, Andre Hal picked off Whitlow’s pass that was tipped by Demarco Robinson, which he brought back 12 yards to the Kentucky 26 yard line. Kimbrow quickly gave the Commodores the lead when he cut up field, side-stepped a defender, and ran it 21 yards to make the score 9-6.
Neither team could generate much offense the rest of the half, but Vanderbilt’s defense continued to step up: Paris Head intercepted Whitlow on the Vanderbilt 22. Jerron Seymour capitalized on the turnover with a 64-yard run, but it was ultimately negated by Trey Wilkins’ illegal block in the back.
Kentucky made one last drive before the end of the half, but Whitlow was intercepted one last time, this time by Andrew Williamson in the closing seconds of the half on a Hail Mary.
The Wildcats marched down to the Vanderbilt 29 on their second drive of the second half but were foiled on a fake field goal set up from 47 yards out. Adam Butler—who had two tackles for a loss, two pass defenses, and a blocked field goal on the day—identified a change in Kentucky’s blocking set-up and stopped holder Jared Leet for a two-yard loss.
Following that big play, Vanderbilt marched all the way down to Kentucky 17, highlighted by a trick play where running back Jerron Seymour lateraled the ball to Carta-Samuels out of the Wildcat formation, who connected with Jordan Matthews for a 41-yard gain. Unfortunately, it was all for naught, since Carey Spear missed a 34-yard field goal wide left, his first miss from inside 50 yards.
Spear ended up getting redemption the next two drives with a pair of field goals from 26 yards and 38 yards out. Vanderbilt’s offense faced fourth-and-four and fourth-and-two in each respective situation but chose to take the points instead.
“There came a point in that game where I felt that points were at a premium,” said Franklin, “and we needed to make sure we came away with it.”
With Kentucky down 15-6 and just seven minutes left, the Wildcats were running out of time, but Vanderbilt’s defense stepped up again. This time it was Kenny Ladler’s turn for an interception, his third in as many games, as he came down with a Whitlow pass on his own 45 yard line.
Vanderbilt was able to eat up most of the rest of the clock with a steady diet of handoffs to Seymour and Kimbrow plus a reverse to Matthews, who picked up 31 yards on two carries. Patton Robinette came in for the last two plays at quarterback and scored the final points of the game on a jump pass to a wide-open Kris Kentera, bringing the score to 22-6.
“We talked about getting Patton a little bit of work,” said Franklin, “but just the way the game went it didn’t happen. But we love the fact that he came in at the end and did his job.”
Carta-Samuels finished with 19-24 passing for 184 yards, and Robinette was 1-1 for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Vanderbilt improves to 6-4 after this victory, including a 3-4 record in the SEC, and is bowl eligible for the third year in a row—the first time in team history. You won’t see Franklin gloating, though.
“You beat an SEC team, and then you handle your business, we couldn’t be more excited,” said Franklin. “Love the fact that we’re 1-0 this week. We’re going to enjoy it tonight and tomorrow we’re going to focus on our next opponent.
“At the end of the year, we’ll come in here, and you guys will tell us if we’ve been invited to play somewhere. And nobody will be more excited than us, wherever it is.”