MEMPHIS – Prior to the Liberty Bowl, Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward insisted that opponents were afraid to throw the ball his way.
He was challenged on Saturday – and he made Cincinnati pay.
The senior intercepted two Zach Collaros passes, tying the school’s career record and earning outstanding defensive player honors in a 31-24 loss.
Hayward finished his career with 15 interceptions, including a team-high seven this season and six in 2010, to join Leonard Coleman (1980-83) atop the charts.
“At the beginning of the season, I knew how many I needed to tie it and pass it ... I don’t like tying,” Hayward said. “On the outside we don’t get many balls but when we do you just have to capitalize on it. That is what [cornerbacks coach Wesley] McGriff and I talk about every week, ‘Once the ball comes, attack the ball and make plays on it.’ The two balls I did get I made plays on the ball.”
Hayward provided a spark early when he jumped in front of a Collaros pass intended for Isaiah Pead and raced 11 yards to the Cincinnati 22. That led to the game’s first points as three plays later running back Zac Stacy busted seven yards up the gut for a touchdown that gave the Commodores a 7-0 lead with 7:34 to go in the first quarter.
“I think that play really got us going,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “Casey did that all year long – made critical plays when they needed to be made.”
Hayward's final interception gave Vanderbilt a chance to take back the lead after Cincinnati went in front 24-21 with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-10, Collaros unleashed a long pass down inside the Vanderbilt red zone. Hayward leaped up and grabbed the ball and fell backward to the 18-yard line with 9:33 to go.
The 5-foot-11, 188-pounder from Perry, Ga., finished with eight tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup.
“I think he is a special player and he is going to have a chance to play for a very long time,” Franklin said. “Not just because of his physical skills but the way he carries himself. He is a Vanderbilt guy. Wherever he ends up going he is going to handle himself the right way on and off the field. He is a big-time player and he steps up every single time you need him to step up. He’s been a joy to coach.”
• No stopping Pead: Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead rushed for 149 yards on 28 carries and scored the game-clinching touchdown. His 12-yard scamper stretched the Bearcats' lead to 10 points with 1:52 left and capped off a superb performance for the senior.
Pead entered the game with 1,110 rushing yards and became just the fifth running back to go over 100 yards this season against Vanderbilt. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder gave the Commodores fits all game, eluding defenders with his speed and quick cuts.
He was named the game’s MVP and Cincinnati’s outstanding offensive player.
“We talked to some people and they said you are going to watch him on film and think he is good then once you play him he is going to be better than you thought,” Franklin said. “He broke a lot of tackles, he made people miss. He’d slip and slide and get another three yards on every single run.”
Cincinnati finished with 221 rushing yards – George Winn accounted for 69 on a second-quarter touchdown run. It was the most the Commodores allowed since Kentucky got 341 on Nov. 13, 2010.
• Bowl trends: Vanderbilt led at halftime in their first three bowl games but has trailed in the last two.
The Commodores were ahead 7-0 after the first quarter of this one and took a lead into the second quarter for the fifth straight bowl game.
Before Zac Stacy’s 7-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Vanderbilt hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown in a bowl since its first appearance, the 1955 Gator Bowl.
It was also Vanderbilt’s first offensive touchdown in a bowl since the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl. In the 2008 Music City Bowl, safety Sean Richardson, then a freshman, scored the Commodores’ lone touchdown after a fumbled punt return by Boston College.
• Breezy Saturday afternoon: A strong 15 mile-per-hour wind blowing out of the south proved to be a factor right from the start.
Before the opening kickoff, the breeze knocked the ball off the tee twice, forcing Vanderbilt cornerback Trey Wilson to hold the ball for kicker Carey Spear.
• Hot Bowl: It was a warm 66 degrees at the time of kickoff. The game-time temperature is the third warmest in the 53-year history of the Liberty Bowl.
• Coaching connections: Franklin, offensive coordinator John Donovan, strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt and chief of staff Jemal Griffin are all familiar with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
Banks coached the linebackers and secondary at Maryland from 2003-06. Joining him at that time on the Terps’ staff was Franklin (offensive coordinator), Donovan (running backs/quarterbacks coach), Galt (strength and conditioning coach) and Griffin (assistant recruiting coordinator).
Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones and Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand worked together at West Virginia from 2005-06.