NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nick Melillo's voice cracked as clouds hung in the sky.
His face was red from the wind and four harsh quarters against Vanderbilt.
"I think this is the toughest loss I've ever had in my career at any level," Melillo said. "It was one of those ones where we know we needed this one. I'm a senior, so I don't want to go out without a bowl game."
Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) took advantage of Kentucky's mistakes to jump out to a 24-0 lead at halftime and all but ended the Wildcats' (4-6, 1-5 SEC) chances of making it to a school-record sixth consecutive bowl game. The Commodores outgained Kentucky 410-211 en route to a 38-8 win, their biggest win over the Wildcats since 1969.
To become bowl-eligible, Kentucky will have to win at Georgia, which leads the SEC East, then break a 26-year-old losing streak to Tennessee.
"It just got tougher for us," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "I understand that."
Melillo's first career touchdown, which came late in the third quarter, kept the Wildcats from being shut out. But Vanderbilt's victory was a forgone conclusion by that point. It started when punter Ryan Tydlacka couldn't handle a low snap deep in UK territory. He fell on the ball but Vanderbilt started the drive three yards away from the end zone, scoring on the next play.
Things cascaded from there. Vanderbilt ran up 278 yards in the first half and was up 31-0 in the third quarter. The Wildcats didn't have a turnover on offense, but still couldn't stay out of their own way. They entered the game as the least-penalized team in the conference but were flagged 10 times for 105 yards.
A week after Maxwell Smith led Kentucky to its first SEC win this season with the poise of a veteran, he looked like a true freshman in his first road start. He completed just 15 of 31 passes for 179 yards and started off slowly. By the time he found a rhythm, it was too late.
He didn't have much help, though. Kentucky gained just 32 yards on the ground and the offensive line surrendered four sacks. Vanderbilt tailback Zac Stacy had a career day, gaining 135 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. His final touchdown, during which he dragged several Kentucky defenders into the end zone, was indicative of Kentucky's problems all day.
"Every man in there created it," Phillips said. "Including myself."
At halftime, Kentucky had 41 total yards and had been penalized for 40 yards. After an off week in practice, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders saw it coming.
"There were a number of things that went wrong, obviously," Sanders said. "We went a long time there before we could put together three or four plays without a bust."
As the final minutes ticked away, Vanderbilt inserted its seniors for their last home game. It was the feeling that Kentucky's seniors had wanted - to be one step closer to a bowl game in the final hours of their career.
Time is still running short for them. As a new-look Vanderbilt team celebrated the win, Kentucky's veterans were left with only one option.
"This one hurts bad," Melillo said. "This is one of those games where it tears you up. When it all comes down to it, our backs are against the wall.
"We have no other choice but to win."
Senior left tackle Chandler Burden sprained his right thumb and will undergo X-rays. Junior safety Martavius Neloms injured his right ankle in the fourth quarter. He left the locker room wearing a boot on his foot and on crutches. Senior linebacker Winston Guy sprained his right AC (shoulder) on the same play Neloms was hurt. He'll be evaluated going forward.