KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee freshman Eric Gray rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns, including breakaways of 56 and 94 yards, as the Volunteers trounced Vanderbilt 28-10 on Saturday to end the regular season with a five-game winning streak.
Lightning caused the game to start 28 minutes late. A second lightning delay lasting 39 minutes occurred midway through the fourth quarter with Tennessee leading 28-10.
Gray more than doubled his previous season rushing total and had the fifth-highest single-game rushing total ever by a Tennessee player.
His 56-yard and 94-yard runs were Tennessee’s two longest carries of the season. Gray’s 94-yarder was the second-longest run from scrimmage in Tennessee history, trailing only Kelsey Finch’s 99-yarder in a 27-17 loss to Florida in 1977.
Tennessee (7-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) clinched its first winning season since 2016 as it continued its rebound from a 1-4 start. The Volunteers went 4-8 in 2017 and 5-7 last year.
Vanderbilt (3-9, 1-7) was seeking its fourth straight victory in an annual series that Tennessee has traditionally dominated. Tennessee went 28-1 against Vanderbilt from 1983-2011, but Vanderbilt won five of their seven match ups from 2012-18 and had beaten the Vols by an average margin of 18 points the last three years.
But the Commodores couldn’t come close to extending that streak.
Vanderbilt was a three-touchdown underdog and watched its remote hopes for an upset fade when 1,000-yard rusher Ke’Shawn Vaughn appeared to hurt his left shoulder on the Commodores’ first play from scrimmage.
Vaughn returned to the game on Vanderbilt’s next series but sat out the entire second half and finished with six carries for just 13 yards. Vanderbilt also played the entire game without injured tight end Jared Pinkney.
Gray was the dominant running back in this game instead.
The Tennessee freshman has earned plenty of praise for his big-play potential, but he had just 207 yards rushing and 81 yards receiving through the Vols’ first 11 games and hadn’t been much of a factor since the first month of the season.
That all changed Saturday. Tennessee was trailing 3-0 until Gray took over the game.
On his first carry of the night, Gray ran through a big hole on the right side, then cut to his left and was untouched on a 56-yard breakaway that put Tennessee ahead for good. Gray’s first career touchdown run also was Tennessee’s longest carry of the season up to that point.
After Jarrett Guarantano’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Dominick Wood-Anderson extended Tennessee’s lead to 14-3, Gray would deliver an even bigger highlight.
Tennessee was backed up at its own 6-yard line midway through the second quarter after a 57-yard punt from Harrison Smith when the Vols handed the ball to Gray. The speedy freshman raced through the right side of the line, eluded safety Dashaun Jerkins’ diving tackle attempt just beyond the line of scrimmage and wasn’t touched the rest of the way.
Gray added a 4-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt’s lone touchdown came on Riley Neal’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Kalija Lipscomb with 11:34 remaining. Neal went 14 of 29 for 139 yards passing.
Vanderbilt: This game ended a disappointing season for Vanderbilt, which was expecting bigger things when Vaughn, Pinkney and Lipscomb all returned for their senior years after big performances in 2018. Vanderbilt instead went through a revolving door at the quarterback position and struggled on both sides of the ball. The Commodores now must figure out how to turn things around without Vaughn, Pinkney or Lipscomb. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who owns a 27-47 record in six seasons, will get an opportunity to fix this. Athletic director Malcolm Turner already has indicated Mason will be back in 2020.
Tennessee: The Vols overcame a sluggish performance from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano because Gray ran wild and the defense continued its late-season surge. Guarantano went 6-of-17 passing for 120 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He threw an interception on Tennessee’s opening series to set up a Vanderbilt field goal.
Vanderbilt’s season is over.
Tennessee awaits its bowl destination.