Exactly three years to the day after making his first collegiate start in a Music City Bowl victory, quarterback Larry Smith was called in to rally Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
Much maligned and criticized for inconsistent play over the last three seasons, it was the fifth-year senior’s chance to write a better ending in his last collegiate game.
Smith sparked a lackluster offense and led the Commodores on three scoring drives but ultimately came up short in a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati. Yet, there was a sense of redemption for the good-natured Smith, who lost his starting job midway through the season.
“When he went in there and threw that touchdown [early in the fourth quarter], he came to the sideline and I said, ‘Who could have written a better script than this?’ ” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “Obviously we would have liked for it to end differently, but I was so glad for him to get on the field and have some success.”
Through the first six games, Smith never finished a contest as he was pulled due to either injury, ineffectiveness or with the Commodores up big. After a 33-28 loss to Georgia, with just a 3-3 record at the midpoint of the season, Franklin decided to pull Smith in favor of Jordan Rodgers.
“It was challenging at first,” said Smith, who finished the season with five touchdowns, six interceptions and just 668 passing yards. “But my mindset is the team first, and I realized it was the best move and in the best interest of the team. So I took it as the same approach as if I was starting.”
His upbeat attitude and loyalty were rewarded on Saturday. With Rodgers struggling to move the chains and completing only 4-of-14 passes for 26 yards and one interception, Franklin inserted Smith with 10:22 left in the third quarter.
After a three-and-out on his first drive and two straight incompletions to start the second, he connected with Wesley Tate over the middle for 12 yards on third-and-10. That was just the start as he completed his next two passes to Jordan Matthews, who got to the Cincinnati 5-yard line after a 15-yard catch and run. On the next play, Jerron Seymour rushed in for a game-tying touchdown.
Cincinnati responded with a field goal but Smith came right back. On the second play, he hooked up with Chris Boyd on a short screen pass, which Boyd turned into a 68-yard touchdown by racing down the sideline for a 21-17 lead just 57 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Smith finished with 142 yards on 8-of-19 passing and was named an outstanding offensive player of the game. But after Cincinnati regained the lead on a kickoff return for a touchdown just moments after Smith and Boyd’s connection, Smith couldn’t do enough to rally the Commodores. Vanderbilt went three-and-out on two straight possessions before Smith threw a costly interception with 3:15 left.
“It started off strong once I got in on those first two drives and put 14 points on the board,” Smith said. “The interception was kind of devastating for me. But the team rallied around me and told me to keep my head up.”
Franklin says that is what Smith did all season.
“I’ve never seen a quarterback handle losing his job with more grace and more class than this guy did,” Franklin said. “He was so supportive of Jordan all the way. That’s a great lesson for our whole team. When he said it was hard, I never saw that. He came in and watched just as much film as he did when he was a starter. Never saw him hang his head, never saw him having conversations on the side in the locker room — never. He kept all that internal.”
Smith’s career ended with more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes (16). Named Alabama’s Mr. Football in 2007, he never could match his high school success.
Yet, his third college head coach in as many years said the quarterback with the contagious smile will be remembered for much more than what he accomplished on the field.
“Larry is an amazing guy,” Franklin said. “On the field, off the field, in the community, the whole package, he is everything you want. If my wife would decide to give me a son at some point, which she refuses to do — I’ve got a bunch of beautiful daughters — I’d want guys like this, right here, every single day. And I hope my daughters marry guys like this.”
• Stacy moving up: Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy etched his name into the school’s record books on Saturday.
His seven-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was his 14th of the season and 20th of his career. That tied him for second all-time with Jamie O’Rourke (1971-74). The junior also is just the third Vanderbilt running back since World War II to rush for 20 touchdowns.
Stacy is the school’s single-season rushing leader with 1,193 yards. Against Cincinnati, the 5-foot-9, 208-pounder eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark for his career, becoming the eighth Commodore to achieve the feat.
• Statistical differences: Among the nation’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Vanderbilt made major strides statistically this season compared to last year.
With a week of bowls left before the 2011 season concludes, Vanderbilt ranks 19th in total defense (322.7 yards per game). That is a huge improvement from 2010, when the Commodores ranked 93rd (419.2 yards). They also allowed just 21.6 points a game, good for 30th best in the nation. Last year they ranked 94th, giving up 31.2 points per contest.
Offensively, they scored 10 more points a game this season, finishing with 26.6 per game to rank 61st. A year ago, they mustered just 16.9 to rank 112th in the country. They made their least improvement in total offense, moving up 11 spots to 99th. They gained 339 yards a game this season and just 298.2 last year.