The Vanderbilt defense struggled to contain UMass, but Derek Mason's team found strength when they needed to and held the Minutemen scoreless over the final 25 minutes. That was enough time to give Patton Robinette and a slowly-improving Commodore offense the opportunity to win their first game of 2014. Massachusetts got out to a 14-0 head start and led this game 31-20 with nine minutes left to play, but the 'Dores came back strong to post a 34-31 win over their non-conference foe.
The victory was Mason's first as a Division I head coach. It was anything but easy.
True freshman quarterback Wade Freebeck started this game. In true Derek Mason fashion, he didn't last long. Freebeck threw just two passes - including an interception - before getting pulled for sophomore Patton Robinette, Vandy's starter in the season opener against Temple. The veteran, or at least the closest thing Vanderbilt has to a veteran at QB, had an instant impact for his team. Robinette led the 'Dores to a pair of touchdowns to turn a 14-0 laugher into a 24-20 contest at halftime.
UMass relied on their quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and a handful of Vandy mistakes to get on the board early. Frohnapfel led the Minutemen 76 yards on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, then brought them to midfield on the next possession before giving his punter a chance to shine. Brian McDonald took advantage of Vandy's inability to spot a fake punt and found Rodney Mills for a 53-yard touchdown that sent Commodore fans around the country to their computers to complain.
The 'Dores came back behind Robinette's touchdowns and an Adam Butler fumble recovery in the UMass end zone, but they could not sustain that momentum in the second half. Massachusetts took their first possession of the frame 66 yards behind Lorenzo Woodley's running and a pair of pass interference calls to make it 31-20. Vandy appeared to get back within striking distance when Andrew Williamson blasted Frohnapfel and forced a fumble that Stephen Weatherly returned 48 yards for a touchdown. However, that call was overturned and Vanderbilt rolled into the fourth quarter down by two possessions.
Weatherly would not be denied. He helped his team hold UMass to a key three-and-out one drive later, then blocked McDonald's punt, picked up the ball, and rolled into the end zone to cut the Minuteman lead to five. The 'Dores failed to convert the two-point conversion, keeping the score 31-26 with 8:57 to play.
The score remained that way 5:30 later when Caleb Azubike notched a momentum-swinging sack that forced UMass to punt the ball back to the home team. Robinette then led the 'Dores 53-yards - much of it covered when C.J. Duncan ripped an interception away from Randall Jette for a 36-yard catch - to take the lead on a four-yard Ralph Webb touchdown run. Vandy got their first two-point conversion of the afternoon when Robinette found Duncan once more to give the Commodores their first lead of the season, 34-31.
UMass responded. The Minutemen drove 55 yards to set up a potential game-tying field goal from 22 yards out, but Blake Lucas's kick started left and stayed that way to dash Massachusetts's hopes for their first-ever win over a BCS program. Vandy DT Adam Butler did his best to console Lucas with a hug, but his efforts appeared to be futile.
Robinette looked like he belonged as Vanderbilt's starting quarterback despite playing in relief of Freebeck. He finished the day with 147 passing yards and a touchdown while proving to be the only passer to lead this team's offense to significant points in 2014. Ralph Webb ran for 116 yards and a touchdown in his strongest game as a Commodore, while Duncan had 72 receiving yards and a two-point conversion.
Vanderbilt will have a week to figure out their defensive issues before traveling to South Carolina for a primetime game against the Gamecocks. UMass's players will try to wash the taste of this come-from-ahead loss from their mouths against a BCS-conference opponent when they travel to State College, PA and face Vandy's old coach, James Franklin.