NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Tennessee finally found a way to honor departing coach Phillip Fulmer.
The Volunteers kept alive his unbeaten streak when playing at Vanderbilt with a 20-10 win over the Commodores on Saturday. Fulmer lost only once in 16 games against the instate rival.
A choked up Fulmer, who is being forced out at Tennessee after 17 seasons, acknowledged the players' efforts through what has been his worst season as coach.
The Volunteers (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) have recorded only the second seven-loss season in program history, and after learning Nov. 3 of Fulmer's departure they suffered a demoralizing homecoming loss to Wyoming, one of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"This team has not had everything good happen to it that everyone around our program has liked, but they have never quit," he said.
The win helped Tennessee avoid a school-worst eight losses for at least one week, and Vanderbilt (6-5, 4-4) missed a chance to capture its second five-win SEC season.
Eric Berry returned his seventh interception of the season for a touchdown in the victory. He holds the SEC's single-season and career records with 265 interception return yards for the season and 487 for his career. His pick was the 12th of his career.
Tennessee's offense, which ranked only ahead of Vanderbilt's in the SEC with 267.1 yards per game, found life — reaching the double digits for the first time since Oct. 18.
Eleven games into the season, Tennessee debuted two new faces at quarterback. Redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman took over on the third drive of the game, sharing snaps with Berry.
"I am proud of the way B.J. Coleman played today," Fulmer said. "His youthfulness showed up today at different times, but he competed and played hard. He will only continue to get better."
In the second quarter, Coleman and Lennon Creer combined for eight straight rushes for 57 yards. On third-and-1, Montario Hardesty broke through a pile at the line of scrimmage and trotted into the end zone to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead with 11:25 before halftime.
Hardesty broke a 27-yard run, his longest of the season, setting up a 25-yard field goal by Daniel Lincoln to put Tennessee up 10-0 with 7:45 in the second quarter.
Five plays later, Berry picked off a pass by Chris Nickson and returned it 45 yards to give Tennessee a 17-0 lead.
"I saw the quarterback peeking at this receiver, and I was already breaking for the ball to make a play," Berry said.
By halftime, Tennessee had 122 yards of offense compared to Vanderbilt's 25 and overall, all but 21 of Tennessee's 243 total yards on offense were on the ground. Of Vanderbilt's 213 yards, only 25 yards were by rushing.
When a 31-yard field goal by Bryant Hahnfeldt and a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown by Reshard Langford cut Tennessee's lead to 20-10 in the third quarter, the Commodores appeared poised for yet another comeback push.
With six minutes left in the game, Mackenzi Adams connected with Justin Wheeler on an 18-yard pass and converted fourth-and-9 with a 21-yard pass to D.J. Moore.
But when Vanderbilt was faced with fourth-and-10 on the Tennessee 39, Adams' pass to Sean Walker fell 1 yard shy of the first down, ending the Commodores' hopes.
"Tennessee had a lot to do with it, but we dug such a big hole in the first half that we had a hard time coming back in the second half with that kind of deficit," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.
Vanderbilt struggled the entire first half behind Nickson. On his six drives as starter, the Commodores went backward on three of them, went three and out on another and turned the ball over twice.
Vanderbilt got the ball on the Tennessee 34 when Lewis picked off Tennessee starter Jonathan Crompton on the second play of the game, but the Commodores lost 8 yards on the play thanks to an illegal block in the back penalty by Brandon Barden.
Adams took over for Nickson on the last drive of the first half and successfully moved Vanderbilt 26 yards but threw an interception to Brent Vinson at the Vanderbilt 34. Vinson returned it 69 yards to set up a 24-yard field goal by Lincoln to give Tennessee a 20-0 lead at halftime.
Adams finished 18-for-38 for 192 yards and the interception.
"We just played flat. We didn't play with the energy we had last week. It didn't compare," Langford said of Vanderbilt's 31-24 win over Kentucky.