The defensive pressure was nearly nonexistent in the season opener. Saturday night it didn’t look much better on the first drive of Week 2.
Vanderbilt's defense was back on its heels during Connecticut’s 12-play, 72-yard opening series that resulted in a field goal. The Huskies, the defending Big East champs, were having their way up front. Huge holes opened at the line of scrimmage for running back Lyle McCombs, who burst through for 52 yards on his first seven carries.
“They were trying to be more forceful upfront,” Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “They were coming off the ball hitting us hard. We just needed to get some penetration and make some plays.”
Then the Commodores broke through — with a fury.
Vanderbilt accumulated five sacks and 10 tackles for loss, forced four turnovers, broke up six passes and allowed just two field goals. In fact, Connecticut’s only two touchdowns in Vanderbilt’s 24-21 victory came off a blocked punt and a fumble recovery.
“When you are able to get those tackles for loss and sacks and be disruptive that really helps,” VU coach James Franklin said. “It gets a team like that off schedule ... now they have to put those inexperienced quarterbacks in and have to beat you throwing the ball. It makes it challenging for them.”
Though the Commodores (2-0) forced three turnovers in their opener, they allowed 323 yards to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Elon and had just two sacks.
“You got to be quick off the ball,” Lohr said. “You just got to get into the backfield. You got to want to get back there.”
“There was a couple times [early that Connecticut] went unbalanced [on the offensive line] and we didn’t adjust correctly ... just some communication things,” Franklin said. “Once we were able to clean those things up, I thought [defensive coordinator] Bob [Shoop] and his staff did a really, really good job. Then we started making plays.”
Vanderbilt turned up the intensity on Connecticut’s second drive. On the first play, safety Kenny Ladler jumped the route for an interception. Vanderbilt scored its first touchdown on the very next play. The Huskies’ punted on their next four possessions and Javon Marshall intercepted Johnny McEntee to end their last drive before halftime.
Connecticut (1-1) finished with just 193 yards, including only 89 on the ground.
Vanderbilt’s five sacks — two by Tim Fugger, one apiece from Chase Garnham and Lohr and a combined takedown from Johnell Thomas and Steven Clarke — went for a combined loss of 26 yards. Connecticut’s three-pronged quarterback attack of McEntee, Scott Cummings and Mike Nebrich completed 11 of 29 passes for 104 yards. The Huskies also converted just 3-of-15 third-down opportunities.
But the defense didn’t just make big plays — it delivered them at huge moments.
Trailing just 14-13 in the third quarter, Connecticut began to drive near midfield. Fugger had back-to-back sacks against Cummings and McEntee to thwart the threat.
“I really didn't feel like I was in a rhythm until then, and then I just started flowing and got some more quarterback hits,” Fugger said. “The whole D-Line was really coming off the ball and getting after it.”
The Huskies appeared to be in business again early in the fourth quarter. Still trailing by one point, they marched down to Vanderbilt’s 25-yard line. Garnham hit McEntee hard and forced a fumble, which was recovered by the Commodores’ Vince Taylor.
“We stepped up when we needed to,” Franklin said. “We had a critical sack or a critical tackle for loss or an interception at the right time.”
The biggest turnover came with Vanderbilt trailing 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter. Casey Hayward picked up his 10th career interception — he is ninth all-time in school history — and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. It was his first career touchdown and tied the game at 21.
“Obviously Casey’s play was huge ... not [to] just make that play, but be determined to get into the end zone,” Franklin said. “You saw the whole team, you saw all that black change direction and rally around and now start leading him down the sideline and making blocks for him.
"We are going to play team football around here. We are going to play with all 11 guys. We are going to be selfless.”