Vanderbilt Makes History with Bowl Win
By Matt Smith
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The Vanderbilt Commodores capped their best season since 1915 Monday by beating North Carolina State 38-24.
There have been a number of “first time since (fill in the year)” accomplishments this season for the Vanderbilt football team, and the Commodores closed out 2012 with yet another.
On a chilly New Year’s Eve at LP Field in Nashville, Vanderbilt (9-4) defeated N.C. State (7-6), 38-24, to win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl and reach the nine-win plateau for the first time since 1915. 55,801 attended the game, most wearing black and gold in support of the hometown Commodores, playing just three miles from their campus.
“We take it one game at a time, but the significance of nine games is different,” said Commodores coach James Franklin. “You guys hear these dates we’re throwing out? We’re throwing out dates like 1915. That’s a very long time ago. We’re talking about [the players’] great-grandparents.”
Senior running back Zac Stacy, named the game’s MVP, led the Commodores ground attack with 107 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, many of those from the Wildcat formation, in his final college game. Stacy finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher, a mark he set in an Oct. 20 win over Auburn, with 3,143 yards.
“Don’t fix what’s not broke,” Stacy said of the heavy emphasis on the Wildcat. “The game of football is all about execution.”
Four first-half turnovers, two fumbles and two Mike Glennon interceptions, proved costly for the Wolfpack, playing under interim head coach Dana Bible after Tom O’Brien was fired last month. New head coach Dave Doeren, hired on Dec. 2, was in attendance at the game.
“We’re disappointed but proud,” Bible said. “We knew we were going against a quality team playing with a lot of confidence. You can’t make mistakes like that.”
Vanderbilt began six possessions in N.C. State territory and only had 225 yards of total offense, barely half of the 424 yards gained by the Wolfpack, but that was all they needed thanks to the SEC’s fourth-ranked defense routinely giving its offense short fields with which to work.
“I didn’t think we played a great game, but we made plays when we needed to, especially on defense,” Franklin said. “We were confident that our defense would find a way.”
The Commodores took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards for a touchdown, capped by a spectacular one-handed catch by Chris Boyd in the corner of the end zone. The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass but was overturned upon video review.
Both offenses stalled for the remainder of the first quarter, but the second quarter brought plenty of fireworks, with four touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. Tony Creecy’s one-yard score pulled N.C. State within 14-7 after Stacy’s six-yard score had put the Commodores ahead by two touchdowns.
A long kickoff return set up the Commodores at the Wolfpack 32-yard line, and Vanderbilt needed just five plays, all runs, to find the end zone, with Wesley Tate scoring from seven yards out. It took even less time for N.C. State to answer, as Tobais Palmer went 95 yards untouched on the ensuing kickoff to cut the lead to 21-14.
Eric Samuels’ interception of Glennon after a Vanderbilt punt set the Commodores up inside the Wolfpack 20-yard line, and Jordan Rodgers found Jordan Matthews for an 18-yard touchdown as the Commodores regained their 14-point lead at halftime. Glennon closed his career by completing 35 of 53 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown, but his three interceptions told the story of the day.
“I put [Glennon] in a position to fail,” said Bible, who as the offensive coordinator under O’Brien called plays. “Two of those, those are on me.”
Glennon’s third interception came in the third quarter, as Trey Wilson picked off the senior in the end zone and returned it deep into N.C. State territory before being knocked down by teammate Jared Morse. Franklin was less than pleased with the sophomore lineman for preventing a possible touchdown, quickly getting in Morse’s face to express his displeasure. The Commodores did manage three points on the drive after Carey Spear connected on a 30-yard field goal attempt.
“I turned around, and right when I turned around, Trey ran right into me,” Morse explained of the play. “Coach Franklin was not happy with me at all. I’m sure I’ll be on the “Not Top 10” in the next couple days. Not the finest moment in my Vanderbilt career, but it’s all fun when you win.”
N.C. State closed to within two touchdowns after a field goal of its own, but turned the ball over on downs on its next possession. Vanderbilt capitalized on the short field with an eight-play drive capped by a 15-yard touchdown run by Rodgers to put the game out of reach at 38-17.
Rodgers, who was benched in last year’s Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati, finished 16-25 for 108 yards with two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and no turnovers to help finally erase the demons of a difficult day in Memphis exactly one year ago Monday.
“Last year, as a quarterback, you’re going to take the blame for a lot,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t put my team in a situation to win. This year, I did what I was asked to do. Did I play a perfect game today? No, I don’t think so, but we were firing on all cylinders.”
Glennon found Rashard Smith for a 19-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining for the game’s final points, his last pass as a college quarterback. Vanderbilt ran out the remaining time, as Stacy’s penultimate run put him over the 100-yard mark for the fourth time this season.
Both teams now head into the long offseason with exactly eight months until their next game. Vanderbilt opens its 2013 season with an SEC opponent for the second consecutive year when Ole Miss makes the trip to Nashville on Aug. 31. N.C. State hosts Louisiana Tech that same day in Raleigh, as the Doeren era officially commences.
How many more “first time since” moments will Vanderbilt have in the coming years? Franklin thinks plenty.
“We’re going to start talking about things that people think we have no business talking about. We have very high expectations for this program. We’re not going anywhere. Everybody better get used to it. This is the brand new Vanderbilt.”
If that happens, the “first time since” moments of 2012 will soon become “first time ever” moments in 2013 and 2014.