Vanderbilt will not return to a bowl game this fall. However, its return game, led by Warren Norman, is moving into uncharted statistical territory.
“A guy like that is explosive,” linebacker Patrick Benoist said. “He’s a highlight waiting to happen.”
Norman tied a Southeastern Conference single-season record with his third kickoff return for a touchdown, but Vanderbilt could not keep pace with high-scoring Georgia Tech and lost 56-31 before 30,262 at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday.
The defeat guaranteed VU can win no more than five games this season and, consequently, cannot become bowl eligible.
The 11-ranked Yellow Jackets (8-1) racked up a season-high 598 yards of total offense and went ahead to stay when they scored 28 unanswered second-half points. That run started with two touchdowns in the final minute of the third quarter.
Prior to that point, the Commodores (2-7) led twice, and the score was tied three times. Their last advantage was 31-28 following Ryan Fowler’s 23-yard field goal 4:25 into the second half.
“In the second half we played much better on defense,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “… (Vanderbilt’s) kids played hard. I thought they fought all night.”
Georgia Tech’s point total was the most allowed by Vanderbilt since a 56-30 loss to Kentucky Nov. 10, 2001.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer set one career-high with 186 rushing yards and tied another with three touchdowns. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt ran for two touchdowns and passed for two others.
“I really think Georgia Tech has a really outstanding football team,” VU coach Bobby Johnson said. “We would have to play really well to stop them. … They have some weapons and do a great job with the their offense. They took it to us.”
Norman’s 80-yard return with 5:45 to play in the second quarter got the Commodores within seven, 28-21. He also took one back 99 yards a week earlier against South Carolina and went 76 yards for a score against Army on Oct. 10.
The freshman from Stone Mountain, Ga., later surpassed VU’s record for kickoff return yards in a season set last fall by D.J. Moore. Moore’s total of 823 was the fourth-highest in conference history.
With three games remaining, Norman has 852, 53 shy of the SEC record set in 2008 by Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson.
Willie Gault of the University Tennessee is the only other player in SEC history to score on three kickoff returns in the same season. He did so in 1980.
“I kind of don’t think about records and things like that,” Norman said. “I just come in here to play hard and try to win football games.”
Vanderbilt tied it 28-28 when another freshman, Zac Stacy, scored on a 62-yard run 2:30 after Norman’s return. It was Stacy’s second touchdown of the half. His three-yard run with 2:23 to go in the first quarter gave the Commodores a 14-7 lead.
Starting quarterback Larry Smith left the game with about four minutes to go in the first quarter with a pulled hamstring. He was hurt on a 35-yard run up the right sideline.
Senior Mackenzi Adams replaced Smith and led Vanderbilt to a touchdown on that drive. He played the remainder of the game and completed 12 of 22 passes for 152 yards.
Adams did lose a fumble at the Commodores’ 22 with 6:37 to play in the first half. Georgia Tech recovered and took a 28-14 lead two plays later. A Jamie Graham fumble at the VU 19 led to Tech’s second touchdown of the third quarter.
“Our offense and special teams played great all night,” Benoist said. “Unfortunately the defense couldn’t stop the big plays.”
For more on Vanderbilt's loss to Georgia Tech, click here.