This is what Vanderbilt had been trying in vain to do for 16 years.
By upsetting No. 24 South Carolina 24-17 on Thursday at Vanderbilt Stadium, the Commodores knocked off a ranked opponent at home for the first time since 1992.
VU has picked up big wins on the road in recent years, but slaying a giant in Nashville has proved to be an elusive assignment.
“We’re trying to defend our house,” defensive end Steve Stone said. “That’s a big point for us this year. We catch a lot of bad breaks here at Vanderbilt, but tonight we made our own breaks."
The Commodores (2-0) made their point Thursday in a resounding way. With the game on the line, they choked off the South Carolina offense with two key quarterback sacks by Stone, then stuffed the ball down the throat of the Gamecock defense on the ground to run out the clock.
Vanderbilt usually wilts in similar situations. This time, they defeated South Carolina (1-1) for the second straight season, marking the first time it has beaten the same Southeastern Conference in back-to-back seasons since 1998-99.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier brushed aside the notion that his team overlooked the Commodores.
“We were ready to play, we just got our tails kicked,” he said. “I’m sure those Vanderbilt players are wondering what kind of excuse the South Carolina guys have now. We don’t have any excuses. They just beat us.”
Tailback Jared Hawkins rushed for a career-high 84 yards, including 64 in the second half. Time and again, he gashed the South Carolina defense for key runs in the fourth quarter and scored from 13 yards out with 9:28 left to give VU a 24-10 lead.
The Gamecocks responded by trimming the deficit to 24-17 with 7:39 to go on a 5-yard scoring pass from quarterback Chris Smelley to wide receiver Freddie Brown.
On its next drive, South Carolina drove to the Vanderbilt 34 before Stone sacked Smelley on consecutive plays, igniting the Vanderbilt Stadium crowd of 36,850.
“Our defensive line was relentless,” VU coach Bobby Johnson said.
Forced to punt the ball back to back to Vanderbilt, the South Carolina defense couldn’t stop Hawkins, who seven-yard run on third-and-5 from the VU 22 put a dagger into the visitors.
“We knew we had to get out there, make a statement and get some big first downs in clutch situations,” Hawkins said.
Vanderbilt mustered only 50 yards of total offense in the first half, including only 14 passing yards.
The Commodore defense out-gained the offense in the first half, as VU defensive backs Darlron Spead and Reshard Langford returned interceptions for a combined total of 74 yards.
Vanderbilt, however, could not capitalize on the opportunities provided by its defense.
Following Spead’s second-quarter interception, the Commodores drove to a first-and-goal situation from the South Carolina 5, but had to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Bryant Hahnfeldt to make it 7-3.
In the first quarter, Langford returned his interception 33 yards to the Gamecocks 47, but the Commodores punted three plays later.
South Carolina went ahead 7-0 with 6:00 left in the first quarter when quarterback Smelley connected with wide receiver Kenny McKinley for a 19-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-19 play.
In the end, however, Vanderbilt made enough to plays to finally enjoy the fruits of victory in its own stadium.
“It can mean a whole lot, but we have to follow it up,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “This ups the ante a little bit. We’ve got a responsibility now to keep playing this way.”