NASHVILLE - A second in-state trip this month left the University of Tennessee football team with a second home-away-from-home game Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium.
It wasn't as flashy as the Volunteers' trip to Memphis, and less-than-stellar play kept the issue in doubt much longer than it was against the Tigers - or in last week's home win over Ole Miss.
But bad UT held off even-worse Vanderbilt for a 24-10 Southeastern Conference win.
The Vols (5-6, 2-5) kept their bowl hopes alive with one week left in a regular season that started with two wins in the first eight games, while the Commodores (2-9, 1-7 SEC) continued their struggles under first-year head coach Robbie Caldwell.
"You have to give our team a lot of credit," said first-year UT coach Derek Dooley, who was so angry that players had to remind him to sing the postgame victory song in the locker room.
"With a lot of mistakes, we still held them to 10 points and found a way to win, and that's all that matters," Dooley added.
Junior tailback Tauren Poole slashed through the Commodores for a 28-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-2 with 1 minute, 22 seconds left to give the Vols a cushion they couldn't create for most of the second half.
"It wasn't a good game, but that was a good play," Poole said.
The Vols opened the scoring late in the first quarter. A 34-yard rail route to reserve sophomore tailback David Oku set up Tyler Bray's 15-yard score to fellow true freshman Justin Hunter on the next play. Senior Daniel Lincoln's extra point gave UT a 7-0 lead with 4:12 left in the opening period.
Bray's second scoring pass, a 20-yard strike to senior receiver Denarius Moore, doubled the advantage with 6:07 left in the first half.
After Vanderbilt's Larry Smith and Bray exchanged interceptions in the next 72 seconds, the Commodores drove 68 yards and pulled within 14-3 on sophomore Ryan Fowler's 31-yard field goal as time expired in the half.
The Commodores had 57 offensive yards before that 4:55 scoring march, and they finished the first half with 125 yards from scrimmage to UT's 242.
Two colossal mistakes by the Vols didn't cost them a point of their lead, but they temporarily prevented them from adding to it. Junior cornerback Anthony Anderson muffed a punt - UT's seventh this season from a fifth return man - and Vandy recovered at the Vols' 20.
"I'm embarrassed," said Dooley, who questioned whether his Vols had set a national punt-muffing record. "I don't know what else to say."
UT would have added to its lead a few plays later on a long-interception return touchdown by senior defensive end Gerald Williams, but a late-hit penalty on junior defensive tackle Malik Jackson gave Vandy a first down at UT's 11.
"It was ticky-tack, but the ref threw the flag, so Dooley's probably going to yell at me a whole lot tomorrow," Jackson said. "I hate it for Gerald, though. I really hate it. We [defensive linemen] don't get too many touchdowns."
The Commodores stalled again, though, as Fowler missed a 26-yard field-goal try with 11:25 left in the third quarter.
Bray was intercepted again moments later - this time by freshman safety Kenny Ladler near midfield. UT again kept its lead at 14-3, though, when Williams blocked Fowler's 45-yard kick attempt with 7:05 left in the third period. The Vols quickly drove to the Vandy 37, but two false starts and poor offensive execution forced them to punt it back to the Commodores. And in keeping with the general feel of a miserable third quarter for both teams, senior Chad Cunningham booted a 42-yard punt 5 yards into the end zone.
The Vols momentarily regained themselves offensively and drove inside the Vandy 10 early in the fourth quarter, but a Poole drop forced them to settle for a field goal. Lincoln's 28-yard boot gave UT a 17-3 lead with 12:57 left.
Vandy drove to the Vols 36 minutes later, but consecutive tackles for loss from Jackson and senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz pushed the 'Dores back to midfield, and they punted on fourth-and-22 with 8:24 left. Dooley, for the second time this season, chose not to put a punt returner on the field.
The Commodores appeared to slice the deficit to one possession on a 25-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Jared Funk to freshman wide receiver Jordan Matthews, but officials ruled that Matthews went out of bounds on his own before coming back in to catch the ball - which is a penalty. Two plays later, UT sophomore safety Janzen Jackson intercepted Funk near the goal line and returned it to the Vols' 39.
UT punted the ball back to Vanderbilt with 4:21 left, and the Commodores finally found the end zone on a play that counted. Funk connected with Matthews on a 16-yard score, and Fowler's extra point cut the deficit to 17-10 with 2:33 left.
Then, despite having two timeouts left against a UT offense that hadn't run consistently well all night, Caldwell had the Commodores try an onside kick. Moore recovered at the Vandy 36, but the Vols gained just 8 yards on three runs, setting up a fourth-and-2 with 1:29 left. Two UT timeouts set up Poole's score.
UT's regular season ends this Saturday with a 12:21 p.m. home game against Kentucky - which the Vols have beaten 25 consecutive years. Vanderbilt hosts Wake Forest from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.