It wasn't luck. Vanderbilt football earned the win that broke its SEC streak | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Clark Lea didn’t have to be here. When he took the coaching job at his school in his hometown, Lea was at Notre Dame, an annual playoff contender. He had become one of the more-respected defensive coordinators in the country. He could have waited for something better – something easier – than a lengthy rebuild at Vanderbilt.

Mike Wright, he didn’t have to be here, either. Vanderbilt’s quarterback could have tired of the bruises and losses and just transferred to somewhere better. And easier. Even after losing his starting job this season to incoming freshman A.J. Swann, Wright stayed. He didn’t give in or ease up. He chose that.

All of them did.

All those Commodores on a chilly field in Lexington could celebrate a little harder. Because for all they’d been through collectively, they’d certainly earned what – surprise! – had just happened:

Vanderbilt 24, No. 24 Kentucky 21.

Nov 12, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores running back Ray Davis (2) hugs head coach Clark Lea after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

With the win, the Commodores improved to 4-6 in Lea’s second season. None of the previous games was a milestone moment like this one, though. If nothing else, never again will they have to be asked about that SEC losing streak.

More than three years. Twenty-six conference defeats in a row.

But then finally, a long-awaited reward for those who had stuck it out and continued, day after day, loss after loss, to do what they did for a few hours at Kentucky.

“They just kept fighting,” Lea said on SEC Network after the game, fighting back tears himself when talking about his players.

"It makes me emotional," he explained later, "thinking about all that they've invested and all they've sacrificed to get to this point. There's so much ahead of us. But I'm happy for them."

A couple of hours later on a bus ride back to Nashville, Lea's voice was still cracking. Not because of the win, but because he has the flu. "It's still lingering, but I'm getting close," he said.

Lea joked that he was probably the sickest of anyone on a team that dealt with a minor outbreak in the past week. Standing out in cold weather for a few hours probably didn't help. Lea surely didn't mind, though.

He told the Commodores in the locker room that "there are many more of these celebrations ahead of us."

"But we understand," he continued, "how special that first one is (in the SEC) and how hard we've had to work to earn it."

The SEC streak had come to define a too-often overmatched program in a way that ignored how far the Commodores had progressed since a loss to ETSU in Lea’s first game in 2021. Vanderbilt’s team quietly improved over the course of last season. It had improved even more this season.

Nov 12, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores wide receiver Will Sheppard (14) catches a pass during the fourth quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

But that didn’t mean much without tangible results in the SEC. Opportunities to beat Missouri and South Carolina had slipped away this season. With a finishing stretch of Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee, it was difficult to envision a breakthrough until 2023.

And that would have meant another offseason of being asked about a losing streak that would have grown within a year’s reach of Sewanee’s record 36-game drought in the 1930s.

Vanderbilt was a 17-point underdog on a gray, very cold, very Kentucky, November day.

It made mistakes early, too, holding on its first offensive play and then fumbling away the second.

But as the game progressed, it became clear that Vanderbilt was outplaying Kentucky, ultimately winning the yardage count 448 yards to 322. In the trenches, where Vanderbilt has been so outmanned for so long, Lea’s group wanted it more than one of Mark Stoops’ teams.

In three of their four second-half possessions, the Commodores drove at least 10 plays and at least 67 yards for a score. Ray Davis ran for 129 yards and Wright for 126.

Kentucky finally got rolling in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns to take leads of 15-14 and 21-17. The second was a 72-yard touchdown run by Chris Rodriguez with 5:03 remaining, after which you again instinctively thought, “Not today, either, it looks like.”

But say this for Vanderbilt’s program since Lea arrived: It doesn’t quit. Never has. Didn’t Saturday.

"Too often we've denied ourselves that moment because we've spent too much time thinking about what we don't have rather than focusing on the things that we do," Lea said. "As much as I hated that lead change there (on UK's final touchdown), I also felt like it was great opportunity for us."

The difference this time was that when a win was there for the taking on a final drive, the Commodores finally knew how to step up and take it. When it mattered most, Wright found Quincy Skinner Jr. for a 40-yard completion on fourth-and-11 and then Will Sheppard for an 8-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal.

Fitting that Wright – with Swann sidelined Saturday – threw the pass and won the game. Even more fitting that Lea became emotional during his televised postgame interview.

This win, no doubt, was more than a win. It was a worthy reward for a program that chose to keep working to rediscover what had been lost.

What little Vanderbilt football has had over the years, it always had pride. It has gone through hell to get it back.

Perhaps, finally, it has emerged on the other side.

"These guys have never failed to bounce back and to keep going," Lea said. "That's a signature of a team that believes."

As Lea said, the Commodores earned that.

All of them.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.