Where did all the takeaways go? Raise your hand if you asked this question earlier this season. You were not alone.
It was a topic that Head Coach James Franklin addressed ad nauseam throughout the regular season with his team and with the media after a year in which the Commodores had feasted on turnovers. In 2011, Vanderbilt secured 29 takeaways. Entering Monday's Music City Bowl, Vanderbilt was the recipient of just 13 total turnovers.
Well, when it rains it pours, and in Vanderbilt's case it was a full-fledged monsoon of takeaways against NC State. By the time the game ended with the Commodores winning 38-24, Vanderbilt had intercepted NC State quarterback Mike Glennon three times and recovered two Wolfpack fumbles for a total of five takeaways.
The total was one less than Vanderbilt had through the first 10 games combined (six) and it increased Vanderbilt's total takeaway numbers for the season by 38.5 percent.
Not a bad day at the office for a defense that had been itching for turnovers all year long and finally by the end of the season began the reap the rewards of their aggressive style of play. Including Monday's game, Vanderbilt had 10 total takeaways in the last three games. The Commodores intercepted Tennessee three times and recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass at Wake Forest. Then Monday happened.
"We finally broke the ice in the Tennessee game," said safety Kenny Ladler, who had one interception and a fumble recovery in the bowl game. "The ball started bouncing our way and we started making more plays and taking advantage of them. It was a good time of the season for the turnovers to start going our way."
Ladler also recovered a fumble that was forced by linebacker Darreon Herring.
Vanderbilt ended up converting the five turnovers into 17 points on Monday and put the offense into position to score even more times than it did.
"I think the turnovers helped an extreme amount with our confidence," defensive end Johnell Thomas said. "We didn't play our best defense, but the turnovers helped a lot and that allowed our offense to stay on the field and run time off the clock."
Thomas was also responsible for a Wolfpack turnover when he stripped the Shadrach Thornton at the Vanderbilt 49-yard line and Caleb Azubike fell on the fumble.
The takeaways also came during key times on a day in which NC State was able to move the ball successfully on offense. The Wolfpack outgained the Commodores by 199 yards and passed for 383 yards through the air, but Vanderbilt continually came up with key turnovers to take the wind out of NC State's sails.
"I didn't think we played a great game, but we made plays when we needed to and especially on defense," Franklin remarked. "They moved the ball on us, but the turnovers were great erasers."
Two of NC State's turnovers came in Vanderbilt territory and two more came just before the midfield line. A lot of NC State's success moving the football was dictated by its ability to convert on third down. The Wolfpack finished the game converting a remarkable 13-of-19 third-down attempts.
One of, if not Vanderbilt's most critical third-down stop resulted in an interception by defensive back Trey Wilson. With Vanderbilt trailing 28-14 at the half, NC State got the ball to begin the third quarter. The Wolfpack drove all the way down to the Vanderbilt 25-yard line and faced a third-and-2. Glennon dropped back to pass and underthrew his wide receiver in the end zone where Wilson leapt and took the ball away.
Wilson then proceeded to return the interception 65 yards to the NC State 35-yard line before colliding with defensive tackle Jared Morse and falling to the ground. "I felt like I hit a minivan," Wilson said of the collision. On the play, Wilson also became Vanderbilt's career leader in interception return yardage (285 yards).
Vanderbilt cashed in on the turnover with a field goal by Carey Spear to make it a three-possession game.
"They were great on third down and a lot of (why our defense was successful) was our turnovers," defensive tackle Rob Lohr added. "They were making a bunch of drives and we weren't stopping them, but then we would come up with a turnover. Obviously, we'd like to stop them on third down, but we were getting enough turnovers that they weren't getting on the scoreboard."
The five turnovers were a season high in a game and were the most by a Vanderbilt team since the Commodores intercepted Ole Miss five times in 2011.
Vanderbilt's defense was not the recipient of nearly as many turnovers as it was a year ago, but despite the lack of takeaways for much of the year, Vanderbilt still ranked in the top 20 nationally in five of the seven major defensive categories entering Monday's game.
"We were confident that our defense would find a way," Franklin said. "To me, that is the exciting thing about this year. Last year, it was all turnovers that really the season on the defensive end was made up of. This year, we found all different ways to do it, but today was with turnovers."
Turnovers are unpredictable and cannot be counted on, but the edge in the turnover battle often determines the winning team at the end of the day. Vanderbilt made sure that theory held true in a big way on Monday, and most importantly did not convert a turnover themselves, winning the battle 5-0 and evening their margin for the season at 18 turnovers and 18 takeaways.
"Sometimes turnovers come and sometimes they don't, but we're glad they did today," linebacker Chase Garnham said.