LEXINGTON, Ky. -- D.J. Moore scored touchdowns on his first two career receptions and added two critical interceptions, and Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 31-24 Saturday night to gain bowl eligibility for the first time in 26 years.
Twice in the last three seasons, the Commodores (6-4, 4-3) could have ended their postseason drought by simply beating a Kentucky team that had long joined them at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings. They failed on both attempts.
The Wildcats (6-5, 2-5) therefore were perhaps an appropriate victim for the Commodores' fourth SEC win -- a total they last reached in their Hall of Fame Bowl season of 1982, their previous postseason appearance. Another victory against in-state rival Tennessee on Saturday would match Vanderbilt's record for SEC wins, set in 1935 when the conference was in its infancy.
While Kentucky and Vanderbilt have achieved limited success in recent years, never have they appeared in the same postseason. That is likely to change this year as Kentucky has already qualified for its third straight after winning the last two Music City Bowls.
But in the SEC bowl pecking order, the Commodores solidified their position ahead of the Wildcats. On a cold and drizzly night, Vanderbilt set the tempo early and held on at the end.
Chris Nickson, starting in place of Mackenzi Adams, who sustained a hip pointer a week earlier against Florida, completed 15 of 27 passes for a season-high 155 yards and three TDs.
Only Nickson and tailback Jared Hawkins touched the ball in the Commodores' first nine plays, but then Moore -- an unconventional third offensive weapon -- got into the act.
The defensive back and return man had never caught a pass in his career, yet grabbed two in the first quarter, both for nearly identical touchdowns. In both scoring plays, from 25 and 18 yards, Moore sprinted toward the right pylon on a post pattern as Nickson hit him in stride.
Minutes later, Moore returned to defense and picked off Randall Cobb's pass, setting up another Vanderbilt score.
His second pick was even bigger, coming with 2 minutes left while Cobb was trying to lead the Wildcats to a game-tying TD. Instead, the Commodores were able to run out the clock.
Nickson got his third TD of the night, the most by a Vanderbilt quarterback in almost a year, with a 1-yard flip to Brandon Barden. Barden made the catch with his left hand, then switched it to his right, and an official review confirmed he extended the tip of the ball just past the goal line before his knee touched the ground.
Moore did make one big mistake -- a third-quarter fumble that allowed the Wildcats to chip away at the lead with a 3-yard TD run by Tony Dixon.
Kentucky had its chances, but every bounce seemed to go Vanderbilt's way. The Commodores muffed both the opening kick and a subsequent Kentucky punt, recovering both, and Nickson also had a fumble but retained possession.
Kentucky penalties gave Vanderbilt's offense plenty of extra opportunities, even in rare instances when it stalled. The Wildcats were called three times for roughing the punter and once for roughing the passer.
Those contributed to an extremely lopsided time of possession, especially early. After the Commodores took a 21-7 lead late in the first half, they had controlled the ball for nearly 24 minutes, compared to 3 minutes for the Wildcats.
Kentucky didn't get a first down until less than 2 minutes before halftime, and that involved trickery -- a fake that punter Tim Masthay ran for 17 yards. Even that couldn't spark the offense as Kentucky turned it over on downs after getting a second chance.
Vanderbilt added a 39-yard field goal from Bryant Hahnfeldt to stretch the halftime lead to 24-7.
David Jones picked up the ball off the ground after a blocked field goal and ran 57 yards for Kentucky's first points. The Wildcats' previous blocked field goal return for a score came more than three years earlier, also against the Commodores.
Kentucky cut the Commodores' lead to 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter on Cobb's keeper from 10 yards out, set up by an acrobatic 33-yard reception from E.J. Adams. The Wildcats seemed to regain momentum, but it was halted on the next drive by Moore's interception.