Cincinnati beats Vanderbilt 31-24 in Liberty Bowl|
Dec. 31, 2011
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - University of Cincinnati Head Coach Butch Jones rang the bell on the AutoZone Liberty Bowl trophy, eager to get the Bearcats' party started.
And he knew just the place to celebrate in Memphis.
"We officially get to ring in the new year on Beale Street," Jones yelled.
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.
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 past five years, bouncing back from 4-8 in 2010 during Jones' first season.
"A 10-win season is very hard to do in college football," Jones said. "I want to thank the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the experience. I've been to a lot of bowls and I've never been to a better bowl game; the organization, the hospitality, everybody involved. This truly is one of the best bowl games in America. Vanderbilt is a very, very good football team. They have a lot of the same characteristics that we have in our football program. I have a lot of respect for Coach Franklin, his staff and his players."
But the 2011 BIG EAST Conference co-champs had to work to put away Vanderbilt (6-7), 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.
Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward called the return a dagger, and Jones called it very fitting for the Abernathy family.
"He really provided a spark for us on that kickoff return. We challenged our kickoff return," Jones said. "We've been close all year, and we told them that today was the day we were going to get one. And obviously, they responded."
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 was the game's MVP, and the senior 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 D.J. Woods (Strongsville, Ohio/Strongsville) 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 equipment manager Todd McMinn as an unsung hero with Winn scoring on the longest run of his career.
Zach Collaros (Steubenville, Ohio/Steubenville) completed one of the more remarkable comebacks in college football, starting under center 47 days following surgery to correct a broken right ankle on Nov. 14. Collaros threw a touchdown pass and was 12 of 29 for 80 yards passing, moving around well. Pead was just happy to have Collaros back.
"We have all the faith in the world in Munchie (Legaux)," Pead said. "But to have not only your captain and the heart of the team, he was the heartbeat. He was our brother."
The Bearcats led 14-7 at halftime and couldn't take advantage of two Vanderbilt turnovers in the third quarter.
J.K. Schaffer (Cincinnati, Ohio/LaSalle) was UC's defensive MVP, finishing with nine tackles, including one for a loss and a sack.