NASHVILLE — The wheels finally came rattling off.
The rest of the wagon soon fell apart in stirring fashion.
If last November's streak-breaking loss to Kentucky in Lexington was rock bottom for Tennessee's football program, Saturday night in Nashville wasn't far from it.
Vanderbilt whipped the visiting Vols in the second half of a 41-18 win, which was the Commodores' biggest margin over Tennessee since a 26-0 win in 1952 and just the program's second victory against its in-state rival since the 1982 game in Nashville.
As expected, the demeanor of the Tennessee's players after the game as they grabbed their postgame meal and walked the length of the field to their buses was somber and quiet.
"Players, coaches, training staff -- man, it was emotional from wall to wall," tailback Rajion Neal said of the Vols' locker room after the game.
The loss dropped third-year coach Derek Dooley's record to 15-21 overall and 4-19 in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee's lone SEC win since the start of last season was an overtime win against the Commodores in Knoxville last year.
For the third consecutive season Tennessee will finish with a losing record, the first time that's happened since 1909-11. The Vols will miss a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time since 1975-78, and only once in that stretch did they have a losing season.
"I don't think you can say where this program is on one game," Dooley said. "We've had a lot of really good games that we didn't win this year. The program is certainly not near where we need to be. It's not anywhere close to where the fans want it to be, but it's probably a little bit better than what people think it is. That's how I would assess it."
Saturday night's embarrassment included a quarterback controversy in the first half, Tyler Bray's worst performance as the Vols' third-year starting quarterback and a defense that wilted after another strong first half. The Commodores ripped off 28 consecutive points to open the second half after taking advantage of two turnovers for a 13-10 halftime lead.
Players expressed disappointment in a once-promising season that crashed into a 4-7 record and no bowl game but denied that any distractions were to blame for Saturday night's performance.
"This season, we thought we were going to be SEC contenders and have a great season," tailback Marlin Lane said. "We really didn't pay too much attention to the distractions. We just stayed to ourselves and kept practicing normally."
Receiver Jordan Matthews ran for a 47-yard score and caught a 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jordan Rodgers, tailback Zac Stacy scored once in his final home game and the Commodores scored on a trick play in taking a 41-10 lead midway through the final quarter.
Tennessee didn't help itself, as three interceptions led to 17 Vanderbilt points, and an ugly first half offensively was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Defensively, the Vols followed up last week's surprisingly solid first half, when they held Missouri to 64 yards, by allowing just 152 first-half yards to the Commodores, and 72 of that came on a screen pass to Stacy on the game's first play.
The Vols got five consecutive stops, including a stretch when the Commodores went three plays and punted on four of five possessions. The Commodores' other 10 points in the first half came off interceptions in which they started at the Vols' 39 and 18.
Tennessee's defense, ranked last in the SEC and 111th nationally in yards allowed, quickly reverted to form to start the second half. Vanderbilt used Stacy's 29-yard run and Matthews' 47-yard sprint on a reverse to cover 76 yards and take a 20-10 lead.
That was just the start of another bottoming out for the Vols.
"We've been getting our butts kicked, so it's not fun," Bray said.
Safety Byron Moore said Dooley's postgame message to the team was brief.
"He said he was disappointed we couldn't make it to a bowl," Moore said. "He was proud of us for all our hard work this season and just wished we could have sent the guys without a bowl game."
Tennessee won't get that opportunity. All that's left is a game with lowly Kentucky, which fired third-year coach Joker Phillips a couple of weeks ago and let him finish the season, this Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.
"We didn't expect this coming into the season," cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "We had big expectations. That's the main thing I'm going to say about this year, is that we didn't finish."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...