In a game the Vanderbilt Commodores almost had to have to keep the hopes of a second consecutive bowl appearance alive, it was the defense that came to the defense of that dream, holding a Rice offense with high-octane potential to 17 points in the Commodores’ 36-17 victory in Houston. The Owls averaged a paltry 3.8 yards per pass attempt and garnered just 282 yards on a night when Vanderbilt’s offense—behind 216 rushing yards—gained 484 total yards.
“The defense really did do a good job of getting field position,” said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. “We'll take those turnovers every time. Not only does it give you good field position, it also demoralizes the opponent a lot. When we have turnovers it demoralizes me, so I just assume it does them."
Johnson didn’t have to worry about demoralization in this one, with Vanderbilt registering four interceptions in dominating the turnover battle. Leading the way for the secondary once again was senior Myron Lewis, who registered his first two picks of the season, the latter of which came late in the fourth quarter when he ripped the ball away from a diving Rice receiver while jumping over him to secure the interception. With that play, Lewis solidified a message that, on this day, the Commodores would not be outworked.
“We were playing great on defense,” Johnson said. “We were making them push it down and not get any big plays.”
Big plays, however, seemed to come in bunches for a Commodores rushing attack that saw four players score a touchdown on the ground. The most impressive of these scampers was that by true freshman Warren Norman, who shed two tacklers at the line of scrimmage and took care of the rest on a 58-yard dash that seemed to take the wind from beneath the Owls’ wings. Warren finished the night with a career-best 119 yards rushing, with starter and redshirt senior Jared Hawkins returning to action with 61 yards on 11 carries. Redshirt junior Kennard Reeves also continued to impress with 41 yards and a touchdown on only four carries. Also impressive on the night was quarterback Larry Smith, who rebounded from a subpar performance against Mississippi State to complete 23 of 41 passes for 268 yards.
Even so, Johnson still saw significant room for improvement.
"It was good to get a win on the road after losing two,” he said. “We cleaned things up in the second half more than what we played in the first (half). We still have a lot of work to do and need to quit killing ourselves. If we can do that then we have a chance."
Game Ball: Norman
The true freshman continues to leave a positive impression seemingly every time he touches the ball, and this trend continues Saturday night. His touchdown run was arguably the best play of Vanderbilt’s young season so far, and Norman gives the Commodores a three-headed rushing monster with fellow standout true freshman Zac Stacy and returning starter Hawkins.
Subject to criticism much of the past week due to the lack of productivity from the wide receiving core, Cole stepped up in a big way with a beautiful 31-yard touchdown run to go with seven catches for 67 yards. Though his long catch was only 19 yards, if Cole can develop into a receiver that keeps the chains moving, Vanderbilt’s offense will have an added dimension to the passing game on a weekly basis.
Play of the Game: Norman’s 58-yard touchdown run
Not only was the run itself impressive, but it came with the Commodores nursing only a 10 point lead early in the fourth and slammed the door shut on the winless Owls.