Comeback Clinches Bowl Bid for ‘Dores
By Matt Smith
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With their one-point road victory, Vanderbilt is now bowl eligible.
Both teams were 5-4. Both teams beat Auburn at home. Both teams were blown out on the road by Georgia. It would seem logical that, when Vanderbilt and Ole Miss got together on Saturday night in Oxford, it wouldn’t be anything other than a hard-fought 60-minute game. That’s exactly what happened, as the Commodores (6-4, 4-3 SEC) rallied for a 27-26 win over the Rebels (5-5, 2-4) to clinch a second consecutive bowl bid after playing in only one during the 28 seasons prior to coach James Franklin’s arrival in 2011.
Ole Miss built a 23-6 lead early in the third quarter, but was outscored 21-3 over the final 25 minutes of play. Vanderbilt never led until the final minute of the game, when Jordan Rodgers connected with Chris Boyd for a 26-yard touchdown and Carey Spear converted the game-winning extra point with 52 seconds remaining. The Commodores took over at their own 21-yard line with 2:43 to play, marching 79 yards in nine plays to win their third SEC road game of the season, a first in the history of the program.
“I said, ‘This Vanderbilt football team overcomes adversity. This Vanderbilt team knows how to win the tough games’,” Franklin said of his message to the team at halftime, trailing 16-6. “They listened. They believed.”
Winning three SEC road games in the same season for the first time wasn’t the Commodores’ only accomplishment. Vanderbilt now holds a three-game winning streak in Oxford for the first time ever, and has now won five of six in the annual series. The teams will meet again to begin the 2013 season on Aug. 31 in Nashville.
Needing only a field goal to win, Ole Miss crossed the 50-yard line on its final drive, but turned it over on downs with 14 seconds to play after Bo Wallace’s pass to Donte Moncrief fell incomplete. Wallace threw for 403 yards in a losing effort, but the Rebels needed about 20 more yards from their sophomore quarterback to pull out the victory.
The Commodores were forced to overcome the loss of their all-time leading rusher, Zac Stacy, when the senior was injured on the second play from scrimmage. Stacy had to be assisted off of the field, but there was no official word from the school on the status. Junior Wesley Tate and freshman Brian Kimbrow shared running back duties for the remainder of the evening, combining for 84 yards on 24 carries.
“That’s when you know you’re getting better, when it’s not just about one guy,” Franklin said. “Zac goes down, and the next guy comes in and steps up.”
Stacy fumbled on the play in which his injury occurred, the lone turnover of the game, setting Ole Miss up in great field position at the Vanderbilt 31-yard line. Seven plays later, Wallace found Vince Sanders for a nine-yard touchdown to give the Rebels an early 7-0 lead.
The teams traded field goals after both failed to convert first-and-goal opportunities. With Ole Miss holding a 10-3 lead midway through the second quarter, the Rebels converted a third-and-29 and a third-and-16 on consecutive sets of downs to help set up Bryson Rose’s second field goal of the night, this one from 28 yards to extend the lead to double digits. The teams again swapped field goals to close the half, with the Rebels taking a 16-6 lead into the locker room.
The struggling offenses finally got rolling in the second half, as both teams took their first drives of the third quarter in for touchdowns. Ole Miss took a 23-6 lead on a one-yard run by Wallace, but the Commodores answered in just four plays, the last a 52-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Matthews. With the NFL’s Green Bay Packers on a bye this weekend, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Jordan’s older brother, was able to attend the game. The discretely-dressed NFL MVP sat in the Vanderbilt section to cheer on his younger sibling and saw him shine in the Commodores’ furious second half rally.
“Anytime you can have a comeback like that, it’s huge,” Rodgers said. “This Vanderbilt team finds a way to win through the toughest of times, even when it may not be pretty.”
Rodgers completed 20 of his 35 passes for 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns, moving into seventh place on the school’s all-time total offense listed. Matthews’ 153 yards were his most since his career-high of 170 last November at Florida.
Momentum began to swing in favor of the Commodores after the touchdown to Matthews. A 51-yard drive late in the third quarter cut the lead to 23-20 following Tate’s one-yard plunge into the end zone. Vanderbilt converted three straight third downs on the drive after failing on seven of its first eight attempts. Meanwhile, the Commodores defense did not allow a point for over 24 minutes, holding the Rebels to just 55 yards on the ground.
“We go into it every single week with the mentality that the first thing we got to do is stop the run and make them one-dimensional,” Franklin said. “We made plays when we needed to.”
After a pair of punts from each team, Ole Miss converted another lengthy third down, this one when the Rebels needed 21 yards, to keep a drive alive with under seven minutes remaining. Ole Miss drove inside the Commodores 10-yard line, but had to settle for a 27-yard field goal, Rose’s fourth of the night, to take a 26-20 lead. The Rebels needed more than three points, however, and now face a tough road to reach a bowl game in Hugh Freeze’s first year after letting bowl eligibility slip through their fingers on Saturday night.
“We let up a few yards today,” said senior defensive lineman Walker May. “Once they got in the red zone, we knew we had to bow up, and the offense came through for us.”
Vanderbilt returns home next week for its Senior Day game vs. Tennessee (4-6, 0-6), with the opportunity to eliminate the Volunteers from bowl contention. Tennessee has not won an SEC game since defeating the Commodores in overtime last November in Knoxville and hasn’t won an SEC road game since its last trip to Nashville in 2010. The ‘Dores will be aiming for their first win over their in-state rival at Vanderbilt Stadium since 1982. Kickoff in Nashville is set for 6 p.m. CT.
Franklin, per his standard procedure, had no desire to talk either about the Volunteers or the 13th game which lies ahead in late December or early January.
“We’re 1-0 this week and I couldn’t be more excited about being 1-0 this week. We’ll enjoy it [until midnight] and then get on to the next game. We got that team next week. We’ll get ready for them.”
Ole Miss hits the road to meet No. 6 LSU (8-2, 4-2) next Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. CT game before closing its regular season at home against rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The Rebels will need to win at least one of those to return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
If Vanderbilt and Ole Miss played 10 teams, they’d likely each win five. That’s how close the two teams are. However, on Saturday night, only one could win. The Commodores proved victorious, and despite the word “bowl” still being blacklisted inside the locker room, they continue to turn heads with their remarkable strides in less than two years under Franklin.