Vanderbilt had settled into a rut towards the end of the first half. Their play calling was predictable, their drives were stalling, and the defense was allowing Ole Miss to drive into Commodore territory with regularity. Four of the team's seven offensive series in the half ended with three plays or less. Conversely, the Rebels had as many drives end with points for the opposite sideline.
Worse yet, the team was going to have to overcome a double-digit Mississippi lead without their star tailback Zac Stacy, who left the game after only two carries with a knee injury. Only Carey Spear's 44-yard rainbow-arcing field goal kept the team from trudging into the locker room with their heads hung low.
Then, James Franklin must have given one hell of a halftime speech.
Vanderbilt trailed 23-6 early in the third quarter, but played through the deficit as though the lifeless squad of the first half was the remnant of some 2006 team that Jordan Rodgers and Jordan Matthews had only ever seen on game film. Rodgers, who had just 54 passing yards in the first half, came alive behind a shift in playcalling that favored intermediate-level passes to set up big plays against a lackluster Rebel secondary. Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow, stepping up for Stacy, ground out every yard to make a Mississippi defense that had been dropping players into coverage sneak more defenders up to the line of scrimmage.
It only took four plays for that strategy to pay off. After Tate ripped off a 12-yard run on third-and-one, Ole Miss left Matthews single-covered as he ran a vertical route. Matthews got separation from his cornerback and Rodgers put the pass right where it needed to be. Suddenly, the 'Dores could find the end zone - and the game was back on.
That touchdown energized a Vandy team that needed something to rally around. That current simmered until late in the game, when the 'Dores held an Ole Miss team that had effortlessly driven 75 yards on only eight plays to a field goal after the Rebels faced first-and-goal from the six. Bo Wallace and Mississippi threatened to turn the game into a two-possession affair, but were turned back by a Vandy defense that bent all night but never broke. Instead, Vanderbilt got the ball back at their own 21-yard line, trailing 26-20 with 2:43 left on the clock.
There were plenty of opportunities for Vanderbilt to throw this game away with their final drive of the night. Rodgers could have been dropped for a costly sack that brought up an impossible fourth-and-19 situation. He could have been pushed a few inches back on a fourth-and-two run that barely delivered a drive-sustaining first down near midfield. Chris Boyd's touchdown catch could have been brought back by an off-the-ball holding penalty that negated a game-winning play.
None of those problems would have brought new and exciting feelings for Commodore fans. If anything, the expectation was on this team to find a way to lose. Not because Vanderbilt didn't have the better players - they did. Not because they didn't have the momentum and determination to win - they certainly did. Instead, a cloud of doubt hung over this team simply because of the mistakes of Commodore teams past. The ghosts of last season's five losses by a touchdown or less suggested that this team couldn't win like this.
Instead, Franklin and his team dusted away those ghosts and made their own history on Saturday night. If there ever were a game that made a case for the administration's "Brand New Vandy" mantra, it was this one. That shift, from a downtrodden collection of players midway through the second quarter to an energized and, most importantly, confident team in the second half was an affirmation of Franklin's "six seconds at a time" philosophy.
And it was good. It was good for this team, it was good for recruiting, and it was good for these fans. Every one of those groups deserved a break. Every part of this team needed that win. When Chris Boyd sauntered untouched into the end zone with :52 left, they got it. When the 'Dores forced a turnover on downs inside their own territory minutes later, Franklin's crew got a victory that will start to erase some of the heartbreaking losses from Vanderbilt's karma bank.
Now, the tough part will be finding a way to do it against Tennessee.
Jordan Matthews: Vanderbilt's first 1,000-yard receiver since Earl Bennett. Matthews recorded his first 1,000-yard receiving season as a Commodore, moving him into fifth-place all time in single-season receiving yards at Vanderbilt. The current record, held by Boo
WilliamsMitchell (not sure where I got Williams from), is 1,213 - putting Matthews only 206 yards behind. With three games to go, it's likely that the junior will take down that record before 2012 is over.He's also putting himself in position to be the team's all-time reception yardage leader. Matthews is just over 1,000 yards away from Mitchell's career record, and if he returns for a senior season and remains healthy, he'll have a good chance to go down as one of Vandy's most prolific receivers of all time.
- Brian Kimbrow, carrying that weight. Kimbrow got nine carries in Stacy's absence, making Saturday's performance his most active night in a Vandy game that wasn't a blowout. He finished with 41-yards and provided a valuable, speedier option behind Wesley Tate's stronger, between-the-tackles running game. If Stacy is going to miss an extended period of time - and it seems like he'll be limited at the very least - then Kimbrow is going to be counted on to mature quickly and become a top option for this team as it heads towards the postseason.
- Richard Kent, potential bowl game MVP. Can Kent follow in the footsteps of Music City Bowl MVP Brett Upson? Hopefully the 'Dores will be able to put together an offense in their next postseason game that isn't centered on their punter, but if that happens then Kent is a good candidate to have on the field. The senior trapped Ole Miss inside their own 20 with four of his eight punts, including kicks that left the Rebels on their own four, five, and eight yard lines. On a night where the 'Dores needed every inch of field position that they could get, Kent came through.
- That first half playcalling. Tell me if this sounds familiar: deep pass, two-yard run on a direct snap to the tailback, forced pass on third down that everyone on the Ole Miss defense is waiting for. Vanderbilt fell into a rhythm early on against Ole Miss, but it wasn't a good one. The 'Dores tried to crack Mississippi's unheralded secondary by taking shots downfield early, but their inability to set up those shots with an established short game led to plenty of third-and-long situations and kept the team without a touchdown in the first half. Fortunately, Franklin and his crew changed things up in time to rally for the win.
- The defense on third-and-long. Ole Miss converted first downs while facing: , third-and-11, third-and-29, third-and-15, and third-and-21. While the defense was able to stop the Rebels on the third downs that mattered the most - third-and-goal (zero conversions), they did themselves no favors when it came to getting off the field in high-percentage situations.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Jordan Rodgers
It couldn't be anyone else (alright, maybe Jordan Matthews). Rodgers had his finest game as a Commodore and likely drove his team to the postseason while doing it. Fans had questioned his ability to come through in big games since 2011, but he finally proved that he can handle the pressure and engineer a game-winning drive. He finished with his biggest game of the season, passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns hile absorbing just two sacks on the evening.