KNOXVILLE -- Few things have been easy for Tennessee's fifth-year-senior class.
Their final game in Neyland Stadium was no exception. Except it ended with a win.
The Volunteers survived in-state rival Vanderbilt, 31-16, in a Southeastern Conference game Saturday night.
"I don't even want to think about what it would have felt like to lose my last game here," said senior guard Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School star. "Thankfully, I don't have to know."
The Vols (6-5, 3-4) secured bowl eligibility for a group of firth-year seniors who flirted with missing three postseasons. Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8) ended an especially tough season, even by its standards, without an SEC win.
"It was pretty enough for me. A win's a win, and we're going to a bowl game," said senior defensive tackle Wes Brown, who iced the game with a 25-yard interception return touchdown with three seconds left. "We deserve to win and make it to a bowl game.
"Now we'll try to get another win to get in a better bowl game."
The final score put a pretty period on an otherwise mediocre night, though, as Kiffin said moments after the game.
UT was penalized nine times for 95 yards, with several 15-yard infractions.
"To be able to send our seniors out with a win was really special," Kiffin said. "Obviously in the game we would have liked to have played better. We were sloppy at times. We were very poor in the second half, offensively.
"But the main thing is that we won."
Saturday seemed a breeze in the early going. UT took a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but quarterback Mackenzi Adams passed to tight end Ryan van Rensburg for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the score with 8:30 left in the second quarter.
The Vols then scored twice in barely more than three minutes to take a 24-10 halftime advantage. Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton connected with junior receiver Denarius Moore from 11 yards to put UT back ahead, and he passed to junior tight end Luke Stocker from 16 yards.
Stocker's score capped a 30-second, four-play, 61-yard drive that stunned Vandy just before the break.
"It was a big momentum shift," Vanderbilt linebacker Chris Marve said. "That just put us down even further ... but we came back out fighting."
Indeed, the Commodores kept fighting. Jamie Graham intercepted a Crompton pass that bounced off freshman tailback David Oku's hands, and Ryan Fowler's second field goal of the night cut the gap to 24-13 with 6:42 left in the third quarter.
A UT goal-line stand forced the Commodores into another Fowler field goal, this one from 32 yards, narrowing it to 24-16 with 2:54 left.
Sophomore cornerback Stephaun Raines -- a former Dalton High School standout who filled in for one of the Vols' several injured starters -- had a big stop during the stand. Brown had a big, third-down sack, too.
"You prepare all year long like you're the starter, because you can be the starter at any point," Raines said. "This is a physical game, and if you're not preparing every day like you're the starter, you're cheating your teammates and your coaches.
"It was great to get in there and make some plays, don't get me wrong. But honestly, more than anything, I'm just really glad we got this game and get to go to a bowl."
Vols freshman tailback Bryce Brown recovered the onside kick after Fowler's final field goal, and the Vols iced the clock.
UT's regular season concludes this Saturday at Kentucky, and a win could help the Vols' chances to play in a January bowl game.
But the Wildcats won't be UT's last opponent, and that brought a smile to senior tailback Montario Hardesty's face.
Hardesty was rather pleased with his career-high 171 yards on a career-high 32 carries, too.
"I'd have carried it 30-something more times to get this win," Hardesty said. "The team really needed this win, especially us seniors.
We couldn't go out with a loss, man. We just couldn't go out like that."
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