The Vanderbilt quarterback gave the Commodores just what they've been looking for -- a little spark and a lot of consistency -- in his first start, a 44-21 win over Army on Saturday night. He rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown, threw for another and helped open up the field for Zac Stacy's career highs of 198 yards rushing and three scores in a 44-21 win over Army on Saturday night.
Coach James Franklin wasn't ready to announce the Commodores are fixed, though.
"I don't know if we have figured anything out yet," he said. "We're going to be doing that for a long time, I think. But we are getting better. We are starting to show somewhat of an identity."
The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Commodores (4-3) and more importantly appeared to right an offense that was faltering after a fast start. It also kept them in the race for their first postseason appearance since 2008. Two more wins and they clinch bowl eligibility.
The prospects seem much more bright with Rodgers, a redshirt junior, under center. He kept the Black Knights (2-5) off balance all night. Though he completed just 10 of 27 passes, he kept Army's secondary on its heels with deep passes, including two completions of more than 40 yards. That opened things up for Stacy, whose rushing total was third most in a single game for Vanderbilt and it was the first three-touchdown game since 2007.
"We were blowing holes," Rodgers said. "We had a lot of gap schemes. Linemen just man on man trying to beat them and they did."
The Commodores finished with a season-high 530 yards and a handle on the possibilities to come.
"He brings that versatility of throwing and running the ball," Stacy said. "He is going to keep getting better and we are just going to build off that."
Vanderbilt's coaching staff utilized some deception to make the most of Rodgers' abilities. On some plays, he took the snap, set to pass, executed a pump fake, then pulled the ball down. That worked to perfection on Vanderbilt's first and third scores, runs of 1 yard by Stacy and 12 by Rodgers.
Rodgers also had nice timing. After Steelman fumbled a handoff on Army's first drive, Rodgers found Chris Boyd on a fly pattern for a 43-yard touchdown that made it 13-0.
Things eventually got so wide open, Franklin found himself in the unusual position of calling off the Commodores' onslaught.
"(Offensive line coach Herb Hand) wanted to put him back in to get the 200 yards and I just didn't think it was worth it," Franklin said. "We are not really focused on the statistics. We're focused on the wins and doing what's best for our team and our program."
It wasn't all offense, though. Vanderbilt built a 23-6 halftime lead by holding Army, the nation's top rushing team, to 104 yards on the ground in the first half. The Commodores also knocked out Trent Steelman, the Black Knights' most dangerous threat, with 2:20 left in the second quarter.
Army does not reveal the nature of injuries, but Steelman did not return and could not put weight on his left leg when two members of the team's training staff helped him off the field. His streak of 32 straight starts, a record for an Army quarterback, could be in danger when the Black Knights host Fordham next Saturday.
Army, which was averaging 361.3 yards rushing per game, struggled even with Steelman in the game and finished with 270 on the ground. Steelman's replacements, Max Jenkins and Angel Santiago, couldn't get much going either and the Cadets finished with just one pass completion.
"There's no quit in them," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "I told them after the game, 'Guys, you're playing hard enough, you're competing hard enough. You've got to play well. We've got to coach better, we've got to play better and good things will come.'"
Franklin's decision to refocus on the run appeared to be the right call. The Commodores opened 3-0 under the first-year coach but stumbled with three consecutive losses. Rodgers, a redshirt junior who missed last year and was limited in spring drills by a torn labrum, relieved Smith last week against Georgia and guided the Commodores to three scores while rushing for 80 yards.
His only real mistake against Army came in the fourth quarter when under pressure he threw an interception to Geoffrey Bacon, who returned it 70 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 37-21. But Stacy sealed the win with second-half scoring runs of 8 and 55 yards.
The Commodores will have to keep it rolling if they hope to make the postseason. Though they need just two more wins to clinch bowl eligibility, three of their final five opponents have winning records.
"A lot of teams, when you lose three straight, you're going to have a hard time bouncing back," Franklin said. "It shows the character of our team. We're going to keep fighting and competing."
Army falls at Vanderbilt, 44-21
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