Playing on an unseasonably warm, humid night before a hostile crowd, the 24-point underdog Commodores trailed the defending national champs by a surprisingly small 10-7 margin at halftime. Vanderbilt's defense was giving up yardage aplenty to Coach Nick Saban's Tigers, but was keeping them out of the end zone.
But LSU (6-2, 3-2 SEC) struck twice in the third quarter to salt the Commodores away. Marcus Randall hit Craig Davis with a 34-yard scoring strike, and slippery Skyler Green hit paydirt with a 65-yard return of an Abtin Iranmanesh punt.
In between the two scoring plays the Tiger defense knocked out Cutler on a pass play when the pocket around him collapsed. The Tigers were assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the play, but Cutler injured his neck and did not return.
"My neck feels a little stiff from that late hit," said Cutler, who appeared in the postgame interview session with bandages around his shoulders and neck. "It just pressed my neck straight down and I felt numb for a second. I'm going to get X-rays, but I am fine."
Cutler completed 10-of-20 passes for 111 yards, and backup Steven Bright completed 7-of-9 for 75 yards in relief. But outside of one scoring drive late in the second quarter, the offense was unable to get much going against one of the nation's top-rated defenses. Vandy turned it over twice on fumbles and surrendered five quarterback sacks.
Coach Nick Saban had kept his starting quarterback a secret through the week, and JaMarcus Russell got the nod over Marcus Randall, though both played extensively. Russell led the Tigers deep into Vandy territory on their first possession, and LSU took a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter on a 26-yard Ryan Gaudet field goal.
Vanderbilt's offense sputtered; meanwhile LSU racked up big yardage on Vandy's defense but was kept at bay several times inside scoring range. Both teams missed field goal attempts (LSU blocked a Patrick Johnson attempt). The game remained tight until midway through the second quarter, when LSU recovered a Kwane Doster fumble at the the Vandy 21.
Four plays later, Alley Broussard burst through a hole on the right side of the line for a 7-yard score. Gaudet's extra point made the score 10-0 with 6:12 left in the half.
But Vanderbilt's offense would awaken and respond with its finest (and longest) touchdown drive of the year. The Commodores converted big play after big play, with Cutler hitting Marlon White at the 1 on a third-down play to set up a touchdown. (White's fumble on the play was alertly recovered by Cassen Jackson-Garrison.)
Cutler (right) dove over the goal line on a sneak on the next play, and Vandy would go to the half trailing only 10-7. The drive consumed 83 yards, 13 plays, and five critical minutes of clock.
"We made big plays [on that drive]," Cutler said. "We rolled the pocket out a little bit and made some big catches there. Marlon [White] had a big play down there at the goal line.
"The line was playing well. We had good play-calls. We were trying to keep them off-balance, and I thought we did that."
"We weren't stuffing them by any means [in the first half], but we were hanging in there and making them execute," said head coach Bobby Johnson. "We had some people step up and make some plays to keep them out of the end zone. That's what you've got to do in this situation-- hang in there and hang in there."
But LSU would take the opening kickoff in the second half and score on its first possession. The Tigers marched 81 yards on six plays, with the touchdown coming on a 34-yard pass from Randall to Davis.
On Vandy's next possession Cutler went down hurt and Bright entered the game. The Dores failed to move, and Abtin Iranmanesh punted the ball to the LSU 35. Skyler Green fielded it, burst through a seam and glided 65 yards for a touchdown to stretch the lead to 24-7.
"The punt return was a huge play for them," Johnson said. "It sort of demoralized us, and the long pass too. We were in good shape, but we just didn't make the plays."
It was all LSU would need-- the Commodores would never again penetrate past the LSU 30. The two teams exchanged fumbles in the fourth quarter, but neither team threatened to score again.
LSU outgained Vandy 375-289, and limited Vandy to 103 yards rushing on 39 attempts. Norval McKenzie was Vandy's leading rusher with 56 yards on nine carries.
"I thought we played their option halfway decent, and you've got to give their players a lot of credit," said Saban. "They competed well in the game and played hard. They were physical."
Their bowl hopes now officially extinguished, the Commodores (2-6, 1-4 SEC) return home next Saturday to face Florida (4-4, 2-4) at 1 p.m. CT for Homecoming. The game will not be televised in Nashville, but will be available on a pay-per-view basis in the state of Florida. The Gators, whose coach Ron Zook was fired earlier in the week, lost 31-24 Saturday to No. 7 Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
- INJURY REPORT: Besides Cutler, left guard Brian Kovolisky left the game in the second half with what appeared to be a chest injury. He was able to return later in the game. For LSU, starting center Ben Wilkerson suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury on the game's final play.
- CLIMBING THE LADDER: With his 34 yards rushing and 111 yards passing, Jay Cutler climbed into fourth place both on Vanderbilt's all-time passing yardage and total offense lists.
- PERSONNEL NOTES: Redshirt freshman Jonathan Goff started the game at middle linebacker, and true freshman Theo Horrocks started at right defensive end. It was the first career start for both. Bill Alford returned to the starting lineup after missing the Eastern Kentucky game for disciplinary reasons. Abtin Iranmanesh returned as Vanderbilt's punter after relinquishing punting duties for the last two games due to a broken knuckle.
- BAND PLAYS ON: The Vanderbilt Spirit of Gold marching band made the trip to Baton Rouge, including a Friday night layover in New Orleans.
- DROUGHT CONTINUES: Vanderbilt has not defeated LSU in Baton Rouge since 1951. The Commodores and Tigers meet again in Nashville in 2005, and are not scheduled to play again in Baton Rouge until 2009.
AP photos by Bill Haber.