MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Isaiah Pead ran for 149 yards and a touchdown, and Ralph David Abernathy IV's 90-yard kickoff return early in the fourth quarter put Cincinnati ahead to stay as the Bearcats edged Vanderbilt 31-24 on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl.
The Bearcats (10-3) capped the season with their third straight victory.
But the co-Big East Conference champs had to work to put away Vanderbilt (6-7), a team that tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference, despite forcing three turnovers and coming up with two sacks. The Commodores led 21-17 when Abernathy became the first Cincinnati player to return a kickoff for a TD in the program's 13 bowl appearances.
Vandy's Archibald Barnes blocked Tony Miliano's 39-yard field goal with 3:58 left, giving the Commodores the ball with plenty of time to go ahead. Nick Temple picked off a Larry Smith pass with 3:15 remaining, and Pead sealed the victory with a 12-yard TD run with 1:52 left.
Pead was the game's MVP.
Vanderbilt kicked a 35-yard field goal with 35 seconds left, but the Bearcats recovered the onside kick to kneel down for the victory.
Abernathy is the grandson of the civil rights leader who was in Memphis with Martin Luther King when he was assassinated in 1968.
George Winn also scored on a 69-yard TD run when he replaced Pead, while the Big East Offensive Player of the Year fixed a broken chin strap.
Zach Collaros, playing for the first time since breaking his right ankle Nov. 12, threw a touchdown pass but was intercepted twice. He was just 12 of 29 for 80 yards passing, though he moved around well.
Vanderbilt missed notching only its second winning record since 1982 with the loss.
This was only the fifth bowl for the SEC's only private university yet the second in four seasons. But the Commodores had trouble getting their offense going to match a defense that came up with three sacks and two interceptions — both by Casey Hayward.
Smith replaced Jordan Rodgers at quarterback in the third quarter, and he threw for 142 yards, including a short pass to Chris Boyd that the receiver took 68 yards up the right sideline before pulling up lame and diving into the end zone for a 21-17 lead with 14:03 left that lasted only as long as Abernathy could sprint down field after the kickoff.
The Bearcats led 14-7 at halftime and couldn't take advantage of two Vanderbilt turnovers in the third quarter.
The Commodores first muffed the opening kickoff before Rodgers was intercepted by Camerron Cheatham. Rodgers, the younger brother of NFL Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, didn't play after that. Coach James Franklin turned to Smith, who started the Commodores' Music City Bowl win in 2008.
Smith nearly pulled it off. He drove the Commodores 52 yards with a couple of key passes to set up Jerron Seymour's 5-yard TD run with 3:53 left in the quarter to tie it up at 14-all.
Zac Stacy also ran for a TD.