(Saturday, December 31st)
Final Score: Cincinnati 31, Vanderbilt 24
Memphis, TN (Sports Network) - Ralph Abernathy scored on a 90-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter, and Cincinnati pulled away to beat Vanderbilt, 31-24, in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
George Winn ran for a 69-yard touchdown in the first half for the Bearcats (10-3), who turned things around after going 4-8 in head coach Butch Jones' first season.
Zach Collaros was on the sidelines when Cincinnati clinched a share of the Big East Conference title. He returned from a broken right ankle, but was limited to only 80 yards on 12-of-29 passing with two interceptions. The senior quarterback did throw a touchdown pass, however.
Isaiah Pead, the Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Year, gained 149 yards on 28 carries and notched a game-sealing touchdown late in regulation, helping the Bearcats avoid a third straight bowl loss.
Cincinnati's most recent postseason triumph was a 31-21 win over Southern Mississippi in the Papajohns.com Bowl in 2007.
Down 24-21, Vanderbilt (6-7) blocked Tony Miliano's field goal attempt. But the momentum quickly swung back in favor of the Bearcats when Larry Smith, who replaced an ineffective Jordan Rodgers at quarterback, threw an interception on the second play of the Commodores' ensuing drive.
The costly turnover led to Pead's 12-yard dash to the end zone with 1:52 remaining.
Ryan Fowler kicked a 35-yard field goal for Vanderbilt, but Cincinnati prevailed by recovering an onside kick.
"We obviously made too many mistakes today," said Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin. "Special teams, we made too many critical mistakes today. Fumbles, poor coverage, poor kick placement, but all those mistakes are correctable and we will get those corrected in the offseason."
The Commodores produced the only points of the first quarter off a Collaros interception, with Zac Stacy rushing for a seven-yard touchdown.
Winn's lengthy run tied the contest early in the second quarter, and the Bearcats scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the first half after Vanderbilt turned the ball over downs. Collaros connected with Anthony McClung on an eight-yard strike to put Cincinnati up 14-7 at the break.
The Commodores found themselves still trailing by seven despite committing a pair of turnovers in the first three minutes of the second half.
Eric Samuels fumbled the kickoff to begin the third quarter and Camerron Cheatham picked off Rodgers. Cincinnati failed to capitalize on the miscues as the offense went three-and-out after Miliano missed a 41-yard field goal.
With Smith now in the game, Vanderbilt began to move the ball with more consistency and pulled even on Jerron Seymour's five-yard touchdown run with 3:53 to play in the third.
The Bearcats regained the lead when Miliano converted a 44-yard field goal 19 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt moved ahead 38 seconds later as Smith and Chris Boyd hooked up for a 68-yard catch-and-run. Abernathy raced to the end zone on the ensuing kickoff to put Cincinnati in front for good.
"He really provided a spark for us on that kickoff return. We challenged our kickoff return," said Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones. "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."
Cincinnati and Vanderbilt have split eight all-time meetings...Smith completed 8-of-19 throws for 142 yards, compared to Rodgers' total of 26 yards on 4- of-14 passing...The Bearcats improved to 7-6 in bowl games, while the Commodores fell to 2-2-1.
01/01 00:27:23 ET