MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin had seen enough by the time Jordan Rodgers had a pass picked off in the third quarter. The coach benched Rodgers and turned to Larry Smith.
The senior had waited patiently since losing his starting job midway through the season, and he had started Vanderbilt's last bowl win in 2008. Smith threw for a season-high 142 yards and a touchdown before Vanderbilt lost the Liberty Bowl 31-24 to Cincinnati on Saturday.
"It's hard to call the game when you aren't running the plays like you're supposed to," Franklin said.
Franklin became the first coach to take Vanderbilt (6-7) to a bowl in his first season, and he just missed matching Fred Pancoast's seven wins in his first year. Franklin noted the Commodores won just four games combined the past two seasons. They just missed their second winning record since 1982.
"We've come a long ways in a very short period of time," Franklin said.
The Commodores also showed they can travel, selling out their ticket allotment and filling 10 buses for the three-hour trip from Nashville. They gave Vanderbilt at least 60 percent of the fans at the Liberty Bowl, the kind of edge rarely seen at home.
But Vanderbilt had only 106 yards total offense in the first half with Zac Stacy's 7-yard TD run set up by the first of Casey Hayward's two interceptions. The Commodores also came up with three sacks and also blocked a punt late, yet the offense couldn't take advantage of good field position.
"We didn't play well," Franklin said. "Too many mistakes on special teams. We didn't run our offense. I thought our defense was put in tough positions. We kept putting them out on the field."
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.
The Bearcats (10-3) capped the season with their third straight victory by snapping a two-game skid in bowl games. It was their first bowl win since downing Southern Miss in the 2007 PapaJohns.com Bowl. They also notched their fourth 10-win season in the last five years, bouncing back from 4-8 in 2010 during Jones' first season.
The co-Big East Conference champs had to work to put away Vanderbilt, a team that tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference's East Division, 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.
Abernathy is the grandson of the civil rights leader who was in Memphis with Martin Luther King when he was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, a few miles away from the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
"It was a dagger," Hayward said of the return.
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 Larry Smith's pass with 3:15 remaining, and Pead sealed the victory with a 12-yard TD run with 1:52 left.
Pead, the game's MVP, finally got to celebrate a bowl win.
"It was just a huge burden off of our backs," Pead said.
Vanderbilt kicked a 35-yard field goal with 35 seconds left, but the Bearcats recovered the onside kick to kneel down for the victory.
George Winn also scored on a 69-yard TD run when he replaced Pead, while the Big East Offensive Player of the Year got his helmet fix. Jones credited the equipment manager as an unsung hero with Winn scoring on the longest run of his career.
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. Pead was just happy to have Collaros back.
The Commodores first muffed the opening kickoff of the second half before Rodgers was intercepted by Camerron Cheatham. Rodgers, the younger brother of NFL Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, didn't play after that. Franklin turned to Smith, who started the Commodores' lone bowl win since 1955.
Rodgers was 4 of 14 for 26 yards passing and ran for 33 yards.
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. Smith tossed 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 that lasted only as long as Abernathy could sprint down field after the kickoff.
"We made too many critical mistakes against a good football team," Franklin said.