AUBURN, Ala.-- Vanderbilt managed to avoid tropical storm Hanna Saturday, but couldn't avoid a withering defensive performance from the Auburn Tigers. Auburn's defense returned two Jay Cutler fumbles for touchdowns, and running back Carnell Williams added two scores as the Tigers methodically dismantled the Commodores, 31-6.
Bobby Johnson's Commodores entered the game knowing they must stop the Tigers' sophomore running back phenom, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. Vanderbilt's defense did an estimable job of limiting Auburn, holding Williams to two scores and holding Auburn's offense to 17 points.
But the Commodore offense sputtered the entire afternoon and could manage only two Greg Johnson field goals. Auburn's defense pressured Cutler relentlessly, and forced him into two fumbles and two interceptions. The two fumbles, both on third-and-ten plays deep in Vandy territory, were especially costly, leading to 14 points from the Tiger defense.
"It was a tough ball game," said Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. "Vanderbilt played hard, and had it not been for turnovers, it would have been a close game."
"We helped them too much," said Bobby Johnson, who faced his first SEC opponent as Vandy head coach. "Auburn is a fine team. They run well and they make big plays. They had us on our heels most of the game.
"We are learning. We had some bad decisions by Jay Cutler, but we just have to live with an inexperienced quarterback."
"Cadillac" Williams gained 173 yards on 20 carries, and demonstrated to the rain-soaked crowd that he is a special back, perhaps the finest currently in the SEC. The Commodore defense, however, kept him from busting one of his trademark big plays from scrimmage until, with 1:36 remaining in the third quarter, he broke a tackle at the line and went 65 yards down the left sideline.
"The play went just like it was designed," said Williams. "After I got past the safety, I knew I could take it in for six. The offensive line blocked very well."
Safety Justin Giboney's block of a Damon Duval field goal on Auburn's first possession gave Vandy's defense a measure of confidence early. Soon after, however, Auburn got its first score when, with rains pelting the field torrentially, linebacker Karlos Dansby blitzed unblocked into the Vandy backfield on a third-and-10 from the Vandy 20, and forced Jay Cutler to fumble. Dansby scooped up the ball and carried it untouched into the end zone.
The rains later subsided, and Auburn drove the ball 58 yards for its second touchdown. The score came on a slashing, 23-yard Carnell Williams run. Vanderbilt answered with a pair of second-quarter Greg Johnson field goals, one of 32 yards and one of 28 yards, and Auburn carried a 14-6 lead to the locker room at halftime.
Both teams had hurt themselves with costly first-half errors, however. Dan Stricker had dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone. Auburn running back Ronnie Brown had fumbled inside the Vandy 5 to kill an Auburn drive. Cutler, under pressure, had thrown a long interception into double coverage. Despite all the mistakes, Vanderbilt, trailing by only 8, could make a case that it was "hanging around" with Auburn.
With 4:02 left in the third quarter, Auburn tacked on another Duval field goal to stretch its lead to 17-6, and Vandy was still "hanging around." But two plays after Jay Cutler threw a long interception, his second of the night, Williams rumbled for his second touchdown, the 65-yarder, to give Auburn a 24-6 lead.
Any hopes Vandy had of coming back faded with 12:32 to go in the fourth quarter, after Auburn's Mayo Sowell hit Cutler hard from behind at the Vandy 27 and forced him to fumble. Sowell almost recovered it, but couldn't. The ball sloshed around for a few seconds before Spencer Johnson picked it up and took it to the house.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Johnson. "I have been eager to make a big play like that."
Cutler hit 11-of-22 passes for 120 yards in his third start, and was effective at times running the option. But the Vandy offensive line had trouble holding out the Auburn rush, and Cutler found himself frequently on the run from Tiger defenders.
"They made big plays, and we didn't execute the little things," said Cutler. "If we execute some more of the little things, we are right back in the game.
"I felt comfortable coming in here. The rain wasn't really a factor, and neither was the crowd. We just need to work on some things."
Receiver Dan Stricker was held to three catches for 33 yards and was not a factor. Sophomore Brandon Smith was Vandy's leading receiver with four catches for 58 yards, a career high. Fullback Matthew Tant was Vandy's leading rusher with 43 yards on nine carries.
The rain from tropical storm Hanna was a factor with the crowd, as it held the attendance figures considerably below capacity. However, the feared bad weather came and went as the game went on, and only affected the game early in the first quarter on Vandy's first possession.
Vanderbilt (1-2) travels to Oxford, Miss. next Saturday to take on the Ole Miss Rebels in another 11:30 a.m. CDT game. The game will be televised regionally on the Jefferson-Pilot network. Auburn (2-1) faces Mississippi State next Thursday night in an ESPN game.