After falling behind 23-15 in the fourth quarter, Larry Smith guided the Commodores on a 6-play, 69-yard scoring drive, capped by an electrifying 33-yard Zac Stacy touchdown run. But on the two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the score, the shotgun snap went through Smith's hands.
With 2:25 left, Vanderbilt opted to kick the ball away. On a crucial third-down play, safety Jay Fullam was called for a personal foul-- the officials told coaches later it was a "high hit"-- attempting to take down quarterback Dan Persa as he dove for the first down marker. The critical call gave Northwestern 15 yards and first down, allowing the Wildcats to run down the clock as the home crowd booed the officials lustily.
"The call looked clean to me," said defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone. "I tried to get some kind of explanation on it and [the official] said it was helmet-to-helmet."
The ending marred what was otherwise a very evenly played game between the two private schools. A missed extra point in the first half was the difference in Northwestern's 10-9 halftime lead. Twice in the second half Vanderbilt tried two-point conversions in an attempt to tie the score, but both attempts failed.
Despite the bitter loss, the Commodores demonstrated some qualities that may serve them well over the course of the season. Smith completed 19-of-33 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown, his best outing since the Rice game in 2009. Though the Commodores never led, they refused to fold after seeing Northwestern repeatedly stretch its lead.
"The most frustrating thing was that we botched two two-point plays, and that is the thing we worked on as much as anything," said Caldwell in his first postgame press conference. "I'm proud of the overall effort. We could have gotten down but we played a very good football game, and I'm excited that we came back and had a chance to win it.
"We have to learn to finish."
Early on, it looked as though Northwestern might turn the game into a rout. Directed by versatile junior quarterback Dan Persa, who was stellar in his first start in throwing 19-of-21 passes for 222 yards, the Wildcat offense scored on its first two possessions.
Stefan Demos' 26-yard field goal gave the Wildcats a 3-0 lead. Persa located Jeremy Ebert streaking between Commodore defenders for a 33-yard touchdown pass to stretch Northwestern's lead to ten.
But the Commodore defense would settle down, and midway through the second quarter, the offense ignited. A 37-yard aerial from Smith to Turner Wimberly put Vandy in business at the Wildcat 15. After a key third-down conversion by redshirt freshman Wesley Tate, Warren Norman went up the middle for 4 yards, scoring by stretching the ball barely across the stripe.
Ryan Fowler's PAT was no good, and the score was 10-6. But the score seemed to ignite the team and crowd.
After forcing a punt, Vandy would get the ball back with 0:44 left in the half. Smith maneuvered the team deftly into scoring position, and a critical personal foul penalty gave Vandy a first down at the Northwestern 22. Fowler's 30-yard field goal attempt sailed through as time expired, cutting the lead to 10-9 at halftime.
The Wildcats went ahead 17-9 in the third on a 9-yard Persa pass to Drake Dunsmore. Vandy answered with a beautifully executed 36-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Brandon Barden. But the Commodores' attempt to tie the score on a two-point conversion, a Smith run up the middle, was stopped short.
Persa drove his team 71 yards for one last touchdown. The capper, a 2-yard completion to tight end Josh Rooks, gave the Wildcats a 23-15 lead with 4:39 left.
A successful conversion would have made the contest a two-possession game. But the Northwestern holder couldn't handle a high snap, and the lead remained 8 points. Vanderbilt still had a ray of hope.
Using both his arm and his legs, Smith drove Vandy to the Northwestern 33 to set up Stacy's huge scoring run.
"It just opened up," said Stacy. "I did what was expected of all running backs and made a big play."
The stage was set for Vandy to go for two and tie the game-- but the snap was inexplicably botched, and the deficit stood at 2. There would be no second chance.
"It was great to come on the road and find a way to win, and that's what we did today," said a relieved coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Give a lot of credit to Vanderbilt. They kept on playing."
Vanderbilt outgained Northwestern 432-365, and time of possession was virtually even. Both teams had a single turnover. But the Commodores were penalized 9 times for 91 yards, including the final, game-deciding 15-yarder.
"It's always disappointing, especially that first loss, but we can't dwell on this loss," said Stacy, who led the team in rushing with 69 yards. "We fought hard as a team and we just need to bounce back and get ready as a team for LSU."
Next Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium, the Commodores will be trying to avenge a 23-9 loss last season to Les Miles' Bayou Bengals. ESPNU will televise the game nationally, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. CT.
Vanderbilt had not hosted a Big Ten team since Purdue visited in 1942. The Commodores are now 1-1-1 all time vs. Northwestern, and 7-18-2 vs. the Big Ten.
Sitting out the opener were defensive lineman Adam Smotherman and defensive back Jamie Graham.
The Commodores' new black home jerseys had the players' names on the backs, the first time that was true since the 2001 season under Woody Widenhofer.
Vanderbilt played ten true freshmen against Northwestern: Karl Butler, Steven Clarke, Chase Garnham, Andre Hal, Jonathan Krause, Kenny Ladler, Fitz Lassing, Jordan Matthews, Andre Simmons and Carey Spear.