Energized by a defense that produced five Mississippi State turnovers, Vanderbilt erupted for 21 second-quarter points and cruised to an old-fashioned blow-out win over the Bulldogs by a score of 31-13. In earning its first win of the season, Vandy (1-3, 1-2 SEC) unleashed three games' worth of pent-up frustrations on Sylvester Croom's Bulldogs (1-4, 0-3).
"It feels good for our guys to finally come out on top," said Coach Bobby Johnson. "They played very well and played very opportunistic football."
To the casual observer, it was an unappealing, untelevised matchup between two lower-division SEC teams. Playing without starting quarterback Omarr Conner, Sylvester Croom's team was coming off a demoralizing 51-0 loss to LSU, and Vanderbilt was searching for its first win after losing a pair of games it felt it should have won.
But in the end, the resulting contest was no contest at all. Even playing without two injured starters (Justin Geisinger, Kelechi Ohanaja) and another who abruptly quit the team earlier in the week (Mac Pyle), the Commodores still managed to run the ball effectively and keep Mississippi State on its heels for the entire evening. Vandy out-rushed the Maroons 228-138 and held the ball for 36 of the game's 60 minutes.
"We felt like we could run some option [on Mississippi State]" said Johnson. "We got in double slots and ran some option, and of course Matthew [Tant] made a big run, right up the middle. With option football you have to honor it all, and that's what makes it so hard to play."
Vanderbilt's defense, which had not intercepted a pass all year, picked off Mississippi State's quarterbacks four times. Cornerback Bill Alford had a pair of pickoffs, while safety Andrew Pace and cornerback Lorenzo Parker contributed one each. Otis Washington recovered a State fumble.
"Momentum always switches every time you get a turnover," Alford said. "Through the whole game, whenever we got another turnover, we felt like we had the momentum behind us."
The Commodores drew first blood with a 34-yard Patrick Johnson field goal midway through the first period. Mississippi State took its only lead of the night at 7-3 later in the same period, when Jerious Norwood rushed around right end for a 10-yard score to finish off a six-play, 54-yard drive.
But the second quarter, as it turned out, would be all Vanderbilt. First, on a second-and-6 play from the Mississippi State 26-yard line, Jay Cutler faked a pitch on an option play and raced upfield between lunging defenders to score. Patrick Johnson's PAT put the Dores back on top 10-7, and they would never trail again.
"When you can run the option and put defenses in tough situations, sometimes you can run an option with people blitzing up the middle and capture them inside," said Coach Johnson of Cutler's run. "Jay did a good job of looking at the pitch key and took off. He's got the talent to get it in the end zone."
Momentarily it looked as though State had gone back on top when flanker back Will Prosser caught a 96-yard bomb from York and raced to the end zone-- but thankfully for Vanderbilt, the play was called back for offensive pass interference.
On Vandy's next possession backup quarterback Steven Bright entered the game and led the team to its second touchdown in as many possessions. Dragging tacklers along, fullback Matthew Tant set up the score with a 22-yard burst on a quick-hitter that went to the 6-inch line, and Bright found paydirt two plays later on a quarterback sneak.
The two teams exchanged punts for most of the rest of the half, but just before halftime Lorenzo Parker came down with Vandy's second interception of the night on a slant pass at the MSU 40. Throwing on every down, Cutler quickly and expertly drove the team 40 yards in five plays, finally locating Erik Davis across the middle for a 13-yard touchdown pass. Instead of heading to the locker room leading by only 10 points, the quick strike gave Vandy a 17-point halftime lead at 24-7.
"It felt good to have that lead at halftime," said Davis, who played in spite of a painful dislocated toe. "With us being up like that, it gave us a little cushion. It allowed us to relax a little bit on our lead."
Late in the third quarter safety Andrew Pace picked off a short pass from true freshman quarterback Mike Henig at the MSU 14, and once again the Commodores capitalized. This time Tant bulled over the goal line from eight yards out to put the Dores up 31-7, and the game was comfortably in Vandy's hands.
Almost immediately, it was Alford pulling down his second INT of the night on a long pass by York, and the Commodores began substituting freely. The frustrated Bulldogs were unable to score again until 2:28 remained in the game, when Norwood's 5-yard scoring run cut the lead to 31-13. State went for a two-point conversion, but a quick pass play came up just short.
"They're pretty happy, and I'm happy for them," Johnson said of Vandy's players. "They got rewarded a little bit for some hard work. We played a pretty good team the first game in South Carolina. We played well the next two games and didn't get wins. It didn't keep our guys from working hard.
"We had to prepare hard for Mississippi State this week. I was proud of the effort they gave on the practice field, and tonight."
Offensive guard Nigel Seaman earned his first career start in place of Mac Pyle, who left the team unexpectedly earlier in the week.
Wide receiver Erik Davis returned to the starting lineup after missing the Navy game with a dislocated toe. Ryan King started at left tackle for the injured Justin Geisinger, who did not dress for the second game in a row. Jonathan Loyte, expected not to play, did play. Merritt Kirchoffer and Richard Freeman sat out the game with undisclosed injuries.
New injuries: Kevin Joyce suffered an injured knee, and Lorenzo Parker was taken out with an injured shoulder, but neither injury appeared to be serious.
Defensive lineman Robert Dinwiddie, ejected from the Navy game for making contact with an official, started the game and played extensively at tackle. He had played end for the whole game vs. Navy's option attack.
True freshman Cassen Jackson-Garrison made his first appearance at fullback, carrying three times for 22 yards late in the fourth quarter.