For a lot of Vanderbilt fans, the buzzards began to circle the field as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt fans had seen this script play out time and time before. The Commodores would build an early advantage and then see their lead collapse like a house of cards.
Only this time it was different.
With 6:45 to play and UConn facing a third and nine from inside their own territory, All-SEC defensive back Casey Hayward jumped in front of a Johnny McEntee pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown, which tied the game at 21.
"I didn't think he was going to throw the ball to my side on that play and when he did, there was a lot of space after the interception," Hayward said.
It was the type of play that not only changed the game, but could also end up being a pivotal point in Vanderbilt's 2011 season.
Vanderbilt's defense held UConn to a three-and-out on its next possession and a 48-yard carry by Zac Stacy put Carey Spear in position for his game-winning 21-yard field goal.
There was no quit in these Commodores.
"The most important thing that we got out of this is that we found a way to win the game in a very tough situation and we overcame adversity," Head Coach James Franklin said.
Hayward's play came after he had been avoided by UConn for most of the night.
"I read it out wrong and threw a bad ball," McEntee said. "That's what happens sometimes."
It just usually doesn't seem to happen to the often snakebitten Commodores.
Instead with their backs against the wall, it was Vanderbilt's playmakers that seemed to rise to the occasion. First it was Hayward and then it was Stacy, who like Hayward had been in the shadows for most of the game.
In his first six rushing attempts, Stacy had netted minus-1 yard. His seventh would go for 48 yards. Faced with a second and 14 at Vanderbilt's 37, Stacy unleashed his signature run in which he broke at least four tackles and side-stepped past many others.
"It was just a play that was needed," Stacy said. "We needed more big plays on offense and we got it at the right time."
Everything seemed to come together at the right time for the Commodores tonight.
Even when the team looked down and out on the scoreboard, they never believed the game was over. Asked what he felt like when the Commodores trailed by seven late in the fourth quarter, Franklin said he never doubted the team was going to win the game.
"I went down the sideline and reminded the whole team that this is the 2011 Vanderbilt over and over again" Franklin said. "We've been talking about it since Dec. 17. This team has invested too much and put too much into it, and we were going to find a way to persevere."
Defense Rises to Occasion
The Casey Hayward interception not withstanding, Vanderbilt's defense put together one of its better performances of recent memory. The Commodores held the Huskies to 193 total yards of offense, including just 56 in the second half.
Vanderbilt also kept UConn's offense out of the end zone, forcing field goals on drives that looked destined for seven instead of three points.
"Throughout the game, we slowly got more confident in the scheme, more confident in how we were playing and we were able to get off the blocks, avoid their big guys up front and make some plays," defensive end Tim Fugger said.
Vanderbilt finished the game with five sacks, including two by Fugger, who had his on consecutive plays midway through the third quarter.
Hayward's interception may not have been as important to the end result had it not been for a key sack by Chase Garnham with 13:00 to play in the game. With UConn driving at Vanderbilt's 33-yard line, Garnham sacked McEntee and forced a fumble that was recovered by Vince Taylor.
"We stepped up when we needed to," Franklin said. "We had a critical sack, or critical tackle for loss or interception at the right time."
Burrow's career over
During Franklin's post-game press conference, he noted that junior guard Jabo Burrow's career is over due to injury. Burrow started the season opener against Elon at left guard, and will leave a massive void on a young offensive line that surrendered seven sacks against UConn.
Franklin noted that Burrow will not play again, but "he will still be a part of our team and part of our program."
Vanderbilt surprised fans for its game against UConn by wearing black helmets for the first time since the 1990 season under Watson Brown. The Commodores' black helmets fitted the black out theme for the game and were paired with black jerseys, pants and socks.
The black helmets were a surprise that was only revealed to the players on Thursday. The Commodores went through all of their warmups with their gold helmets on and did not reveal their new helmets until running out of the tunnel right before kick. Even the team captains that enter the field for the coin toss before the rest of the team walked to midfield without any helmets at all to ensure the surprise would wait until the whole team entered the field.
Asked after the game, if the black helmets will be back, tailback Zac Stacy smiled and said, "hopefully."
All He Does is Catch Touchdowns ... Almost
Redshirt freshman receiver Chris Boyd continued to terrorize defensive backs by maintaining his perfect reception to touchdown ratio with his first catch of the game. After hauling in two touchdowns on two receptions against Elon, Boyd caught a 42-yard touchdown catch on his first reception of Saturday's game. He later added a four-yard reception to end his streak.
Hindy and 9/11 Victims Remembered
With the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 taking place on Sunday, Vanderbilt paid tribute to nearly 3,000 victims, including former Commodore baseball player Mark Hindy, with a moment of silence before Saturday's game.
Hindy lettered from 1992-95 for the Commodores under Head Coach Roy Mewbourne and was working in the World Trade Center that tragic day. On Friday, I talked with Mewbourne who reflected on Hindy's life 10 years after his passing. Read Mewbourne's thoughts here.