Vanderbilt's offense never got off the ground, and in the end, it snuffed out any chances of a Liberty Bowl win.
The Commodores lost the 2011 Liberty Bowl to Big East co-champions Cincinnati, 31-24 Saturday afternoon. Despite a valiant comeback effort, Vanderbilt fell short of securing just their second winning season in the past 29 years. The team fell to 6-7 on the season with the loss.
While this season may have been a showcase of the "Brand New Vanderbilt," the team's offense was disappointingly similar to the struggling squads of the Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell eras. Vanderbilt struggled to throw the ball downfield all day against a below average secondary. Without a passing game to relieve pressure at the line, Zac Stacy was limited to just 57 yards on 18 carries.
Vanderbilt started strong in a first half that was dictated by defensive strength. The 'Dores broke a string of three-and-outs behind Casey Hayward's first quarter interception. This pick set up a seven-yard Stacy touchdown run that gave James Franklin's team a 7-0 lead early in the game. However, UC responded by grinding out a pair of touchdowns behind a powerful running attack. Isaiah Pead and George Winn cut Vandy up for 228 rushing yards on the day, and the Bearcats held a 14-7 lead at the half.
The team lost Jordan Rodgers in the third quarter to an apparent injury, but the redshirt junior didn't accomplish much in his playing time before then. Rodgers was just four of 14 for 26 yards passing before Larry Smith took over in relief. Smith helped lead the Commodores to a 21-17 advantage in the fourth quarter after engineering a 68-yard screen pass touchdown to Chris Boyd. However, their lead was short lived. Ralph Abernathy returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Vanderbilt would not lead again.
Vanderbilt had a chance to drive for a game-winning score after the 'Dores blocked UC's 39 yard field goal attempt. Trey Wilson picked the ball up near the right sideline and had room to run for a touchdown, but his momentum carried him out of bounds at the 32 yard line. Two plays later, Smith threw behind a stationary Jordan Matthews, leading to a UC interception and Isaiah Pead's game clinching touchdown two plays later.
Trailing 31-21, Vanderbilt had one last chance to get back into the game. A roughing the passer call and 24 yard completion from Smith to Matthews put the team in scoring position, but time ultimately ran out of the 'Dores in 2011. Ryan Fowler kicked a 34 yard field goal to cut UC's lead to 31-24, but the team couldn't recover the ensuing kickoff with just 23 seconds left to play.
The bowl loss drops Vanderbilt to 2-2-1 all-time in bowl games. It was the final game as a Commodore for defensive standouts like Hayward, Chris Marve, and Tim Fugger. All-SEC tight end Brandon Barden also closed out his collegiate career with a bowl loss. Despite the defeat, Vanderbilt will head into 2012 with high hopes behind an offense that returns almost all their key players and will be adding a pair of high school All-Americans.