Nov. 18, 2012
Vanderbilt has made a habit out of rewriting Vanderbilt's history book all season long by setting records and accomplishing things that haven't been done in decades. Saturday, Vanderbilt erased what stood as the most forgettable and disappointing mark of them all for Commodore fans with its 41-18 thumping of Tennessee at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The win ended Tennessee's 14-game winning streak at Vanderbilt Stadium and sent the sold-out crowd into a frenzy. The crowd came early and stayed late. Even when the final horn had sounded, no one wanted to leave. So instead of heading to the exit, they cheered and screamed like they've never done before, letting out 30 years of built up frustration.
And as the players headed to the locker room, the fans were still not done celebrating. Once in the locker room, the players could still hear the roar from outside. Vanderbilt Coach James Franklin, who has been challenging fans all season to arrive early and stay late, heard it too. He recognized what the win meant to the fans, and he wanted to make sure they cherished it a little longer, so he had the players, who were already in the locker room, return to the field. The players sprinted to all corners of the field, waving to and high-fiving fans.
"I was so appreciative for the fans that came early and stayed late, and did a great job on third down," Franklin said. "They were still in the stands when we were coming in so when I came into the locker room I said, 'Hey, let's go out and thank the fans and celebrate with them a little bit, let them know how much we appreciate their support."
The moment was special for not only the fans, but also the players.
"I think it is a testament to them staying with us through the tough times, and we've had a lot of tough times," quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. "It had been since '82 since we beat Tennessee here so they've been waiting a long time for that. We wanted to make sure and celebrate with them and honor them."
Even once the players cleared the field, a large group of fans gathered on Jess Neely Drive to greet the team as it headed back to McGugin Center. The roars could be heard inside the press conference room, located near the locker room.
After the majority of the team had made its way back across the street, many fans remained, waiting for those with media obligations to make an appearance. First it was Franklin, who received a loud cheer about the same time Jordan Rodgers, Zac Stacy and Wesley Johnson were beginning interviews.
Finally, when the three players had finished, they were greeted by more adoring fans.
Even long after the last player had crossed the street, many fans remained, wanting to savor every moment of the experience. The Commodores had just tied the school record for the most SEC wins (five) in school history and had its largest margin of victory over Tennessee since 1954. There were reasons to celebrate, and celebrate they did.
The team has maintained an approach of being 1-0 every week and the team went into Saturday's game with the same mentality it does for each game. The approach has proven to be successful, but at the end of the night, it was clear that the team understood this win meant a little more to others.
"The one thing that Vanderbilt always does is focus on being 1-0 this week, and we did it," said Franklin, who played off of Tennessee's leaked locker room video from last year. "I'm really, really happy for our kids and I'm really, really happy for our coaches because I know how hard they've worked. I know how much this means to the fans. I know how much this means to the alumni."
The win was also especially sweet for the seniors. Before the game, 19 seniors were recognized on Senior Day. The class began their careers with back-to-back 2-10 seasons and are now headed to a bowl game for the second year in a row. The thrill of beating Tennessee combined with the realization that they would not play another game at Vanderbilt Stadium led to a roller coaster of emotions.
"It's been a long ride, it's bittersweet," running back Zac Stacy said. "I don't know whether to cry or be angry or frustrated because this is my last game playing here at Dudley Field. There are just a lot of emotions going through right now."
"I'm like Zac. I didn't know whether to start crying or laugh with excitement," Rodgers said. "I just went and hugged my family. It is a special moment and I'm going to miss playing at Dudley Field. For the short time I was here, it was an unbelievable experience."
It was a special day for the players, coaches and fans. Fans will be celebrating long into the morning hours and will have bragging rights in the series for a year. The celebration will not last long for the team. Up next is Wake Forest and a win against the Deamon Deacons would be Vanderbilt's eighth of the season.
"It was a very good win and we enjoy winning around here," Franklin commented. We're going to enjoy it for two hours like no one has ever enjoyed it before and tomorrow morning we will get back to work."
Hal's Interceptions Lead Turnover Parade
Vanderbilt's ball-hawking defense feasted on turnovers all of last season, but the interceptions and fumbles had been surprisingly absent this year. Well, at least up until Saturday.
Vanderbilt entered the game with just eight forced turnovers all season. The turnovers were split evenly between interceptions and fumble recoveries. Against Tennessee, Vanderbilt nearly matched its season total with three interceptions.
The interceptions led to 17 points by the Commodores and came at critical times of the game.
Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr was directly responsible for the first interception when he got one of his big paws on a pass by Tyler Bray. The ball ricocheted off Lohr's hand and high into the air before Johnell Thomas came down with it at Tennessee's 39-yard line with 9:39 to play in the second quarter. The Commodores would add a field goal to pull within one, 7-6.
The second interception may have been the biggest of the game and came on Tennessee's very next possession. Unhappy with Tyler Bray's performance, Tennessee Head Coach Derek Dooley inserted backup Justin Worley into the game.
Worley drove the Vols from their own 18-yard line to the 46 before releasing a pass that ended up in the hands of Andre Hal. Hal returned it 36 yards to the Tennessee 17 before the Commodores were able to score their first touchdown of the night when Rodgers connected with Chris Boyd for the go-ahead touchdown. Boyd's catch came after the pass was deflected into the air. He maintained his concentration and grabbed the ball just before falling out of bounds. Tennessee added a field goal before the half to make it 13-10, but Hal's interception had given Vanderbilt momentum.
Hal's night was not over.
The Commodores forced Tennessee to go three-and-out on its first possession of the second half and Vanderbilt answered with a 47-yard touchdown run by Jordan Matthews.
With Vanderbilt riding high on emotions, Hal delivered a haymaker on Tennessee's very next drive. On 3rd-and-14, Bray dropped to pass and was intercepted by Hal, who returned it 32 yards to the Tennessee four-yard line.
"I watched film and I knew the route was coming and I just jumped it," Hal said of his second interception.
Vanderbilt would add another touchdown to take a commanding 27-10 lead.
"They came at me and I made plays on the ball tonight," Hal said.
Coming into the game, all the talk was about Tennessee's dynamic receivers, and Hal and his teammates made sure to make a statement.
"They are pretty good receivers," Hal conceded. "But I think I'm a good cornerback and I think Trey Wilson is a good cornerback. So we'll go against anybody in the country."
Defense Dominates Tennessee's Vaunted Offense
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and the Vanderbilt defense did it again.
Vanderbilt's defensive unit has continually gotten better all season long, and Saturday was another indication of just how impressive the defense has been this season.
Tyler Bray and the Tennessee offense had scored at least 35 points in all but two games all season. Vanderbilt added a third game to that list Saturday with a dominant defensive performance.
"I thought our defense played really well against one of the most explosive offenses in the conference," Franklin remarked.
Vanderbilt limited Tennessee to 18 points and only 10 were scored by the Vols' offense. The Commodores kept Tennessee off balance all evening with an array of blitzes and coverages that had the Vols confused.
"To be honest with you, we didn't do anything different than we always do," Franklin said of the team's defensive strategy. "We always have a few little wrinkles in there, different pressures that we do, but we do that every single week. We played our defense. I thought Bob (Shoop) called a really good game. I thought we executed it well."
The Commodores forced three interceptions and limited Bray to just 103 yards passing on 29 attempts. Justin Worley completed 8-of-11 passes for just 51 yards. It was the lowest passing yardage total for Bray in his career as a starter. He hadn't thrown for fewer yards since the third game of his freshman year in 2010 when he came off the bench against Alabama.
"We have a lot of faith in our pass defense," linebacker Chase Garnham said. "We do bring some pressure, so I'm not surprised at all (by the result)."
All week Vanderbilt talked about Tennessee's offense and the fact that it had surrendered just five sacks all season. Vanderbilt got two sacks on Saturday and consistently got pressure on Tennessee.
In the last five games now, Vanderbilt has allowed a total of 28 points in the second half. That is an average of just 5.6 points per game after halftime. Vanderbilt allowed just 47 yards in the second half against Tennessee
Overall, it was the eighth time this season, Vanderbilt has allowed fewer total yards, first downs and rushing yards in the second half than the first half.
Tate Executes Jump Pass
Vanderbilt has reached into its bag of tricks many times before, and Saturday the Commodores dug a little deeper. Faced with a 2nd-and-goal at the three-yard line, Wesley Tate lined up in the Wildcat. He received the snap, took a few steps forward and leaped high in the air, releasing the ball over the defensive line and into the hands of tight end Kris Kentera, who was all alone in the back of the end zone.
"We were getting knocked back at the tight end and fullback position, really across the line, and that's why one of the adjustments we made was the little pop pass that we threw," Franklin said. "We were having a hard enough time moving them and they were loading the box and Wes (Tate) did a great job of selling it and then dumpling it over the top. We just used how aggressive they were being against them."
The Commodores also tried a halfback pass from Zac Stacy to Jordan Rodgers in the end zone, but it was unsuccessful. Stacy's pass was a little short, but Rodgers said after the game that he should have had it.
"I should have scored on the throwback, but ... w'ere going to be aggressive."