Two critical turnovers by the Commodores led to first-half South Carolina scores and put Vandy in a 21-3 halftime hole. Vandy (1-8, 0-5 SEC) came back to score 21 second-half points and ruffled the Gamecocks' feathers a bit, but it was too little too late. With its lead cut to 11 points, Carolina (5-3, 2-3) produced a 14-play, 75-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive that sealed Vandy's 22nd straight SEC defeat.
Johnson, returning to his hometown for the first time as Vanderbilt's coach, had hoped for a better showing from his team.
"I don't know if we could do many more things wrong in the first quarter," Johnson said. "We found a way to botch up everything. It was really hard to recover after that.
"Our guys did not give up, though. I was really proud of our offense-- they did a good job of moving the football. We ran it fairly effectively, and I thought Jay Cutler played a tremendous game."
Statistically Cutler turned in his finest game as a Commodore, and was brilliant in the second half. The sophomore completed 27-of-35 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns, and engineered consecutive second-half touchdown drives of 82, 95 and 62 yards.
"But South Carolina did a great job tonight," Johnson said. "They controlled the football on us. They ran it and we couldn't stop them. That opened it up for passing plays. We just couldn't handle them on defense."
Coach Lou Holtz's Gamecocks established the running game from their very first possession, on which Carolina methodically drove 71 yards for a score. Pinkins' 6-yard run gave Carolina a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
On Vandy's next possession, South Carolina defensive end Moe Thompson leaped to pick off a Jay Cutler screen pass, and returned it 25 yards to the Vandy 8. The turnover set up a 6-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Cory Boyd, which put the Gamecocks up 14-0.
Next came what looked like a costly special teams blunder. Ronald Hatcher fielded the ensuing kickoff in the end zone and proceeded to stumble at the 1-yard-line, putting the Commodore offense into a deep hole. But Vandy drove the ball 89 yards to the South Carolina 10 and settled for a 27-yard Tolga Ertugrul field goal.
It appeared Vandy might be ready to fight its way back into the game when the defense forced Carolina to punt with 6:55 left in the half. But once again disaster struck, when Norval McKenzie fumbled at the Vandy 20. It took the Gamecocks all of three plays to add another score for a 21-3 lead.
Vandy had a chance to add a field goal just before halftime, but Ertugrul's 39-yard attempt fell short.
"The two turnovers were killers," said Johnson of the first half. "We've got to hold on to the football. We had a first down on [McKenzie's] play, and at least thought we could control the ball at that point and keep them from scoring any more. Fumbles will kill you every time.
"At the half, we weren't feeling out of the game. We were moving the ball. Because of the circumstances, our guys weren't completely discouraged. They felt like we could go back out and compete."
South Carolina opened the second half by driving to the Vandy 29, where it faced a fourth-and-two. Holtz went for it, and Pinkins' bootleg fake fooled the Commodores' defense. Pinkins danced down the right sideline for a score that gave the Gamecocks a 28-3 lead.
Late in the third quarter Vandy opened up the offense, and Cutler went to work, completing five straight passes. As the quarter ended, he found Matthew Tant alone in the end zone for a 15-yard score that cut the lead to 28-10. Redshirt freshman Patrick Johnson, making his first appearance, kicked the point-after.
Vandy soon got the ball back on its own 5, and Cutler engineered another impressive drive. The Commodore signal-caller set up a second touchdown with a beautiful 36-yard throw to Erik Davis that put Vandy in business at the Gamecock 9, then hit tight end Dustin Dunning over the middle for a 6-yard TD. With 9:33 left, suddenly Vandy was within two scores at 28-17.
But Vandy's defense couldn't produce a stop. Running behind Pinkins and Turman, the Gamecocks kept the ball on the ground and punched the ball right down Vandy's throat for a clock-eating 72-yard drive. On a third-and-15 from the Vandy 16, Pinkins picked up a blitz and found Cory Boyd uncovered for a score that stretched the lead to 35-17.
Masterfully running the two-minute drill, Cutler completed 7-of-8 passes and moved Vandy 62 yards for another touchdown in only 1:49. Freshman receiver Marlon White hauled in a touchdown pass from three yards out, and with 1:09 to play, the Commodores trailed 35-24 and needed an onside kick recovery.
And they got it. Brandon Smith recovered a high-bouncing squib kick, and Vandy was in business at USC's 47. But the game effectively ended two plays later when an unblocked Moe Thompson leveled Cutler in the pocket and recovered his fumble.
"He got me good," said Cutler of Thompson. "A tenth of a second later, and we had Kwane (Doster) right down the middle. Who knows what would have happened."
For South Carolina, the win kept bowl hopes alive. The Gamecocks have four tough games left, but can become bowl-eligible by winning just one of the four.
"We took care of business, but we have to credit Vanderbilt for playing well," said freshman running back Cory Boyd, who scored one touchdown rushing and one receiving. "They are a tough team, and we didn't take them for granted."
The Commodores, meanwhile, have three games remaining, but are idle next Saturday before a Nov. 8 trip to Florida. The Gators (5-3, 3-2 SEC) face Georgia Saturday, and still entertain hopes of winning the SEC East.
Tight end Dustin Dunning had a career high in receptions (6) and receiving yards, and also scored his first career touchdown on a pass from Cutler. Tight end Curtis Brancheau, who played with a sprained right ankle, came up with two catches for 28 yards. Both tight ends were in the lineup that started the game.
South Carolina's freshman running back Demetris Summers left the game in the third quarter with an elbow injury and did not return.
Placekicker Patrick Johnson replaced Tolga Ertugrul on extra points this week, and was perfect on three attempts. Johnson, a redshirt freshman, had suffered with a pulled leg muscle for much of the season, and Saturday's appearance was his first in a Commodore uniform.
Head coach Bobby Johnson, a Columbia native and a lifelong South Carolina resident before accepting the Vanderbilt job two years ago, had his own personal cheering section of over 50 family members and close friends.
Box Score (Final) VU vs South Carolina (Oct 25, 2003 at Columbia, SC) Score by Quarters 1 2 3 4 Score ----------------- -- -- -- -- ----- VU.................. 0 3 7 14 - 24 Record: (1-8,0-5) South Carolina...... 14 7 7 7 - 35 Record: (5-3,2-3)
1st 07:32 SC - Pinkins, Dondrial 6 yd run (Weaver, Daniel kick), 13-71 5:45, VU 0 - SC 7
02:34 SC - Boyd, Cory 3 yd run (Weaver, Daniel kick), 4-7 2:11, VU 0 - SC 14
2nd 08:41 VU - Tolga Ertugrul 27 yd field goal, 18-89 8:53, VU 3 - SC 14
04:47 SC - Pinkins, Dondrial 5 yd run (Weaver, Daniel kick), 3-20 0:42, VU 3 - SC 21
4th 09:33 VU - Dustin Dunning 6 yd pass from Jay Cutler (Patrick Johnson kick), 8-95 2:36, VU 17 - SC 28
02:58 SC - Boyd, Cory 16 yd pass from Pinkins, Dondrial (Weaver, Daniel kick), 14-75 6:35, VU 17 - SC 35
01:09 VU - Marlon White 3 yd pass from Jay Cutler (Patrick Johnson kick), 7-62 1:49, VU 24 - SC 35
VU SC FIRST DOWNS................... 25 22 RUSHES-YARDS (NET)............ 36-137 45-218 PASSING YDS (NET)............. 319 161 Passes Att-Comp-Int........... 36-27-1 21-13-0 TOTAL OFFENSE PLAYS-YARDS..... 72-456 66-379 Fumble Returns-Yards.......... 0-0 0-0 Punt Returns-Yards............ 2-7 1-1 Kickoff Returns-Yards......... 5-87 4-62 Interception Returns-Yards.... 0-0 1-25 Punts (Number-Avg)............ 3-46.0 4-37.8 Fumbles-Lost.................. 4-2 0-0 Penalties-Yards............... 4-33 4-39 Possession Time............... 31:16 28:44 Third-Down Conversions........ 7 of 13 7 of 12 Fourth-Down Conversions....... 0 of 0 1 of 1 Red-Zone Scores-Chances....... 4-4 4-4 Sacks By: Number-Yards........ 0-0 2-13 RUSHING: VU-Norval McKenzie 15-64; Kwane Doster 11-53; Jay Cutler 8-13; Matthew Tant 2-7. South Carolina-Turman, Daccus 15-94; Pinkins, Dondrial 10-50; Summers, Demetris 8-41; Boyd, Cory 10-36; Irons, Kenny 1-5; Thomas, Matthew 1-minus 8. PASSING: VU-Jay Cutler 27-35-1-319; Team 0-1-0-0. South Carolina-Pinkins, Dondrial 13-21-0-161. RECEIVING: VU-Erik Davis 6-103; Dustin Dunning 6-22; Matthew Tant 4-59; Marlon White 3-26; C. Brancheau 2-28; Brandon Smith 2-16; Chris Young 1-28; Jason Caldwell 1-23; Kwane Doster 1-11; Norval McKenzie 1-3. South Carolina-Williamson, Troy 5-85; Turner, Hart 3-29; Brownlee, Brian 2-19; Boyd, Cory 1-16; Hemphill, Andre 1-9; Newton, Syvelle 1-3. INTERCEPTIONS: VU-None. South Carolina-Thompson, Moe 1-25. FUMBLES: VU-Kwane Doster 1-0; Ronald Hatcher 1-0; Norval McKenzie 1-1; Jay Cutler 1-1. South Carolina-None. Stadium: Williams-Brice Stad. Attendance: 77227 Kickoff time: 7:00 End of Game: 9:47 Total elapsed time: 2:47 Officials: Referee: Doyle Jackson; Umpire: Mike Wallace; Linesman: Clifton Eley; Line judge: Paul Petrisko; Back judge: Mike New; Field judge: Greg Thomas; Side judge: Randy Jackson; Scorer: Ryan Johnson;