It's like an annual rite of passage: Vanderbilt enters November with bowl eligibility on the horizon, and Kentucky comes in and runs the Commodores off the road.
UK had beaten Vandy three straight times, and each win either delayed or denied Bobby Johnson's squad an opportunity to attain that much-desired sixth win.
The Commodores finally stayed on course on Saturday night, building a 24-7 halftime lead and holding on to beat the Wildcats 31-24 in front of 65,595 fans at a chilly Commonwealth Stadium.
Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3) is now eligible to go bowling for the first time since 1982. As for Kentucky, (6-5, 2-5) the Wildcats are already eligible for the post-season but blew a chance to raise their bowl profile.
The star of the game was Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore. Moore, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference cornerback last season and a semifinalist for the 2008 Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation's best defensive back, made his present felt on offense with two first-quarter touchdown receptions that gave the Commodores a 14-0 lead. Moore also came up with two interceptions, one that set up a touchdown and another that ended a potential game-tying UK drive late in the fourth quarter.
While lamenting his team's mistakes, a somber Rich Brooks tipped his hat to Johnson and the Commodores in his post-game news conference.
"He's been one of the better coaches in the league for a long time," Brooks said of Johnson. "They got after us, blocked us up front, and did a good job defensively. We told them that Vandy would come in here in with a vengeance and with a lot of desire. We had to match that, and we didn't."
Senior cornerback David Jones said, "You've got to give credit to Vandy. We had stopped them from getting to a bowl two years in a row, and they wanted it more than we did."
The start of the game was a carbon copy of UK's 42-38 loss to Georgia last week when the Wildcats came out flat defensively and spotted the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead.
A blown coverage left Vandy tailback Jared Hawkins wide open for a 45-yard gain on third-and-10 from the Commodores' 15. The Cats then forced Vanderbilt into a fourth-and-4 from the UK 25, but Moore beat Robbie Mc Atee and hauled in a 25-yard TD pass from Chris Nickson to give Vandy a 7-0 lead at the 9:31 mark of the first quarter.
After the first of two costly roughing-the-punter penalties kept a Vanderbilt drive alive, Moore got behind UK star cornerback Trevard Lindley in the right corner of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown reception and 14-0 Vandy lead at the two-minute mark of the first quarter.
The Kentucky offense was also asleep early. UK went three-and-out on its first two possessions and ran just 15 plays in the first half. Its only first down came on a 17-yard run by Tim Masthay on a fake punt.
UK would get a second roughing-the-punter penalty, but the special teams made up for it when Myron Pryor blocked Bryant Hahnfeldt's 42-yard field-goal attempt and David Jones scooped it up and ran 57 yards for a score.That turned what could have been a 17-0 Vandy lead into just a seven-point deficit, 14-7 with 8:45 remaining in the first half.
Moore then showed off his defensive prowess, picking off Randall Cobb on the opening play of UK's third series to set up Vanderbilt at the Wildcats' 21. Nickson picked up 20 yards on a draw and hit Brandon Barden for a 1-yarder to give the Commodores a 21-7 lead with 2:49 left until intermission.
Masthay's fake-punt run set UK up on the Vandy 46. Kentucky picked up two yards on the next three plays, and Brooks decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Vandy 44. But Cobb misfired on a pass intended for Aaron Boyd, giving the Commodores a short field. Hahnfeldt connected on a 39-yard field-goal attempt two seconds before halftime to send the 'Dores into the locker room with a 24-7 cushion.
"That was a bad coaching decision by me," Brooks said of the fourth-down play. "That gave them three points."
A 26-yard Lones Seiber field goal trimmed the deficit to 24-17 with 2:37 left in the third, and then came perhaps the biggest play of the game. UK appeared to come up with a turnover when Jones picked off Nickson and returned it to the Vandy 30, but that was negated when Micah Johnson was called for a personal foul for roughing Nickson. Johnson appeared to shove Nickson to the ground with two hands as he threw the pass that Jones intercepted.
Brooks said he wasn't sure whether it was the correct call or not.
"(The officials) protect the quarterback, but I couldn't tell," Brooks said. "I saw a glimpse of the replay, and (Johnson) pushed him, but I couldn't tell how many steps he took or if he had time to pull up. That's a huge play in the game. We have all the momentum, then they convert and go down and score. That was a big turning point in the game."
"I wasn't trying to hurt him or hit him helmet to helmet," Johnson said. "It's just hard to slow down when you're going full speed. I pulled up as much as I could, but I guess it wasn't enough."
Nickson, who shredded UK for 517 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in a 38-26 loss in 2006, was sensational again last night, passing for 155 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 118 yards on 20 carries. Nickson's 34-yard scramble set up Jared Hawkins' 4-yard run that gave the 'Dores a 31-17 lead with 14:14 remaining
"Nickson had a field day on us," Brooks said. "He hurt us a bunch of times."
Kentucky got a rare big play from a wide receiver when E.J. Adams went airborn and hauled in a 33-yard deep ball from Cobb to the Vanderbilt 15. Cobb scored on a 10-yard keeper two plays later, and UK was back to within seven, 31-24 at the 8:22 mark.
The Cats had one last chance to tie it, taking the ball over at their 15 with 4:59 remaining. UK drove to the Vandy 23, but Moore stepped in front of Cobb's fourth-and-4 pass intended for Gene McCas kill and made the pick, and the Commodores ran out the clock.
"It feels like a ton of bricks have been taken off our backs after this game," Moore said.
"It's an unbelievable feeling, and the best way to describe it right now would be 'Wow'," Nickson said.