Five drives into Saturday’s game against Georgia, Vanderbilt had failed to do much on offense.
The Commodores had punted twice — with another one blocked — and had thrown two interceptions. Their sixth series didn’t look much better as they faced a fourth-and-13 at their own 22-yard line early in the second quarter.
Then an unlikely source — the special teams — ignited a flame.
Ryan Fowler faked a punt and threw to a wide-open Andrew East down the sideline for a 35-yard gain. The play led to Vanderbilt’s first touchdown and was just the beginning of a strong specials team night that could not be underestimated even though the Commodores eventually fell 33-28.
“I come in here every week — you guys get sick of hearing it sometimes — but I say we have to find a way to make some plays on special teams," coach James Franklin said. "I thought we had a bunch of plays [Saturday] … When I say we are going to play aggressive on offense and defense on special teams, we are going to play that way. If we go to fake a punt, or go do something special on a kickoff and you are looking for someone to blame, blame me. But I want my coaches — offense, defense and special teams — to call the game aggressively and go win the game. Don’t play not to lose.”
The aggressive play calling paid off on the fake punt — this coming after starting punter Richard Kent was involved in Vanderbilt’s biggest special teams miscue of the night.
Kent dropped a knee-high snap from East. He picked up the ball, but Georgia’s Orson Charles blocked the kick. On the next play, Georgia scored a 20-yard touchdown pass and took a 10-0 lead with 11:36 left in the first half.
Fowler, who is the backup punter and kicker, replaced Kent on the next punt attempt, which never happened. Right before the snap to Fowler, Vanderbilt’s offensive line shifted, creating an uneven line. This allowed Georgia to bring three defenders from the left side. It also left East, the long-snapper, wide-open.
“As soon as they shifted, I should have called timeout. My gut said to call timeout,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That certainly gave them life.”
Special teams again sparked the Commodores after Georgia grabbed its biggest lead — 23-7 — just five minutes into the third quarter.
Andre Hal took a kickoff at his own 6-yard line, dodged one leaping Georgia defender, got a block and went 94 yards to the end zone untouched.
It was the first special teams touchdown of the season and fourth-longest kickoff return in Vanderbilt history. Warren Norman last returned a kickoff for a touchdown on Oct. 31, 2009, against Georgia Tech.
“My blockers did a real good job,” Hal said. “They did a good job all night, it was just one block away every time and I got that one time and took it to the house.”
But the biggest special teams play of the night came in the waning seconds when Georgia was trying to run out the clock.
After intercepting a Jordan Rodgers pass, the Bulldogs got the ball back with 1:10 left and a five-point lead.
Vanderbilt used two timeouts, forcing Georgia to punt from its own 45-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. Seldom used receiver Udom Umoh rushed in and blocked Drew Butler’s punt. Umoh and Kenny Ladler both tried to jump on the ball, which was eventually recovered by Steven Clarke at the 20-yard line with seven seconds left.
It gave Rodgers and the Vanderbilt offense two last shots at the end zone, neither of which resulted in a game-winning touchdown.
“What you would love to have done in that situation is scoop and score and our guys were trying to do that,” Franklin said. “We didn’t get it done. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. It wasn’t for a lack of training. [Special teams coach Charles] Bankins does a heck of a job. We work on that all the time in practice. That ball is not shaped perfectly round. It bounces crazy. It didn’t bounce our way. ... That happens sometimes in this game.”