MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Cincinnati 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.
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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.
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’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 recovered the onside kick to kneel down for the victory.
“It got exciting in the second half,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “It was fairly ugly in the in the first half from our perspective. But we did come out and make it a more exciting game.”