It took a little while, but Vanderbilt eventually flexed its muscles in the second half as the Commodores scored the game's final 24 points to defeat Elon, 45-14, Saturday night in the head coaching debut by James Franklin. The Commodores jumped out to a 21-7 advantage, but Elon pulled within seven early in the second half before the Commodores pulled away.
With the win, Franklin became the 13th Vanderbilt coach, but first since Woody Widenhofer in 1997, to win his coaching debut. Franklin will take the win, but he knows there needs to be improvements made going forward.
"First win was kind of special to me," Franklin said. "For people watching, I think the actual score was closer than it would indicate.
"It is step No. 1 and a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do."
The Commodores were outgained 323 to 309 and held the ball for 11 fewer minutes than Elon, but the Phoenix couldn't match the Commodores big play for big play even with receiver Aaron Mellette totaling 11 catches for 180 yards.
All five of Vanderbilt's offensive touchdowns came from at least 11 yards out. Vanderbilt's sixth touchdown came on a 21-yard interception return by Trey Wilson.
Fourth Down Conversions Key Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin showed that he was not afraid to roll the dice by going for it on three fourth-down attempts. The Commodores converted all three, and went on to score each time.
The first conversion came on fourth-and-five from Elon's 39 in the first quarter when Larry Smith connected with Brandon Barden for 14 yards over the middle. The play would eventually lead to the game's first touchdown.
The second conversion was in the second quarter when Larry Smith faked a handoff up the middle on fourth and three and ran 16 yards into the endzone.
"I wasn't surprised at all," said Smith on Franklin's decision to go for it on fourth down. "He talked about that throughout the whole offseason that we were going to be aggressive, and we did an excellent job of being aggressive tonight."
Finally in the third quarter with Vanderbilt leading 21-14, Micah Powell converted a fourth and one from the Elon 46 by rushing for four yards. The Commodores' would eventually add a field goal on the drive.
Franklin's decisions to go for it on fourth not only paid off in big ways, but also showed tremendous confidence in the team's offense, which has been anemic in the previous two seasons.
"I thought we needed to try to get momentum," Franklin said. "We talked about being aggressive since I got here and I felt comfortable with that. They hadn't stopped us once; we stopped ourselves. We are going to be aggressive and do that all year long."
Making Elon Pay For Turnovers The Phoenix turned the ball over three times and each time the Commodores took advantage. The first turnover of the game came on a sack and forced fumble by Tim Fugger after Elon was in position to score the first points of the game. After the fumble, the Commodores drove down the field and Larry Smith connected with Fitz Lassing for a touchdown.
The second turnover was an interception by Trey Wilson - the first of his career - with 8:06 to play in the first half. Wilson jumped a route by Aaron Mellette and picked off his namesake, Thomas Wilson (no relation), and ran 21 yards into the endzone, giving Vanderbilt a 21-7 lead.
"We've been breaking it down on film since we started working on Elon, the opportunity presented itself, I saw the ball and I attacked and made the play," Wilson said.
Elon's final turnover was an interception by Casey Hayward in the fourth quarter. Following Hayward's pick, Wesley Tate took a reverse 23 yards for a touchdown.
Vanderbilt Students Called First Touchdown Play Just before concluding his first post-game press conference, Franklin made a point to thank four students who have been especially supportive of him and the program since arriving on campus.
Franklin noted that the four students - Scott Guthrie, Privy Modana, Stephanie Mills and Trent Palmer - met with him last week and went through the game plan and picked out a play that ended up going for the game's first touchdown - Larry Smith's 15-yard pass to Fitz Lassing.
Defense Starts Slow Vanderbilt's defense got off to a slow start before finishing strong. After going three-and-out on the their first possession, the Phoenix went 46 yards and then 90 yards on back-to-back drives.
"We started working on the little things which turned it around for us," Wilson said. "What they did get in the first half was because of us not executing the fundamentals and not reading our keys as well as we should have, but we tightened up as the game went on."
After gaining 219 yards in the first half, Elon had just 104 yards in the second half.
Conditioning Pays Off During the offseason, players have mentioned on multiple occasions how difficult conditioning workouts had been. Those long hours spent in the summer heat paid off Saturday as the Commodores grew stronger as the game went on and Elon looked fatigued.
"The way we ended the game was because of all our hard work," wide receiver Chris Boyd said. "We'd been working so hard since January. I think Elon may have gotten a little tired at the end and we had those fresh legs.
"We could tell they were getting sluggish, but we were fresh. We just wanted to keep putting more points on the board. Coach Franklin said, `be aggressive on the first play and be aggressive on the last play,' and it worked out well.
Mellette a Menace Elon wideout Aaron Mellette lived up to his billing as an All-American. The 6-foot-4 receiver torched the Commodores for 180 yards on 11 catches, including one touchdown.
"He's a great player," Wilson said. "He can line up anywhere and play."
Boyd Has Memorable Debut In last year's preseason camp, many watched in awe as Vanderbilt's newest receivers, Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, made play after play. Matthews eventually separated himself from Boyd on the field and Boyd redshirted, while Matthews caught fire at the end of the season.
Boyd again impressed this preseason and made his debut on Saturday. It will be a debut many will not forget for a while. Boyd collected two catches, but that is all he needed for two touchdowns, bringing true meaning to the phrase: "all he does is catch touchdowns." Boyd totaled 41 yards on both receptions.
Believe it or not the touchdowns did not necessarily come as a surprise to Boyd.
"I don't know how this happened, but I had a dream last night that my first catch would be a touchdown and it worked out that way," Boyd said.
Here's to hoping Boyd continues to dream of touchdowns on Friday nights.
Tim Fugger and Forced Fumbles Tim Fugger begun the 2011 season as he did the 2010 season by forcing a fumble in the first game. Fugger had four forced fumbles last year, including one in each of the first three games.
Fugger's forced fumble on a sack in the first quarter killed an Elon drive that led to Vanderbilt scoring the first points of the game.
Hayward on Offense Casey Hayward is known as a lockdown corner, but his skill set is now being showcased on offense. On the first offensive play of his career, Hayward took an end around 23 yards and just missed a touchdown had it not been for his left foot just touching the sideline.
It was the only offensive play for Hayward, but it likely won't be the last.
New Season, New Traditions Vanderbilt kicked off a new season by debuting a few new traditions Saturday: `Dore Alley Walk and the anchor presentation.
Vanderbilt held its first-ever `Dore Alley Walk through Vandyville 2 hours, 25 minutes before Saturday's game. Busses dropped the team off at the corner of Children's Way and Natchez Trace where the team gathered before parading to the John Rich Practice Complex with the Spirit of Gold and cheerleaders.
The anchor presentation was held just before kickoff. The anchor was carried by members of the ROTC, which were led onto the field by a bagpiper right before the national anthem.
Fourth Hall of Fame Class Inducted Vanderbilt held its fourth Hall of Fame banquet for its nine new inductees Friday evening in the Student Life Center. Inducted into the class were Lamar Alexander (track), Tyler Griffin (women's soccer), Carl Hinkle (football, deceased), John Ingram (lifetime achievement), Peter Lamb (men's tennis), David Latimer (cross country), Scotti Madison (baseball), Will Perdue (men's basketball) and Sheri Sam (women's basketball).
Members of the class tailgated in the newly established Legends Tent in Vandyville and were recognized on the field at halftime. Those in attendance Saturday included Alexander, Latimer, Madison, Perdue and Sam. Seven of the nine inductees were on hand Friday night. Griffin had business obligation outside the country. Receiving the award for Hinkle was his daughter.