John Cole says he has been putting spin moves on defenders since high school.
So the Vanderbilt punt returner wasn’t surprised when he twisted out of tackles from two Eastern Michigan defenders and then turned up field for a 54-yard punt return in the first quarter Saturday night.
“I knew I was capable, I just had to hit the seam,” he said.
Still, even after those two nifty moves, staying on his feet after almost being tripped by a third tackler and breaking into the open field, Cole failed to get into the end zone. The 5-foot-11, 182-pound redshirt sophomore’s dive attempt fell short and he was ruled out at the Eagles’ 1-yard line.
Quarterback Larry Smith rushed in for a score on the next play and Vanderbilt was off to a 52-6 rout.
“I kind of got tripped up and really didn’t regain full speed until the last little bit,” said Cole, who finished with 163 all-purpose yards, including a 57-yard touchdown reception. “I thought I was going to (score) but we will take the score anyway we can get it.”
That was the mood Monday at Vanderbilt’s weekly football press conference: Saturday’s win wasn’t pretty at times and it was against a team that entered on a 17-game losing streak, but it was a victory.
And as they begin a stretch of six straight Southeastern Conference games – starting Saturday at Georgia – any victory is huge for the Commodores.
“If it is a ‘W,’ I’m happy,” coach Robbie Caldwell said. “Now, behind the scenes, we are going to go to work on what we didn’t do well. But let’s face it, you beat your buddy there in golf by one stroke or 20 – what difference does it make? You took his money.
“The ‘W’ train rides a whole lot better than the ‘L.’”
Georgia can relate.
The Bulldogs (2-4, 1-3) enter the contest after snapping a four-game losing streak by blowing out Tennessee 41-14 on Saturday. Now they will try to extend their win streak against Vanderbilt (2-3, 1-1) to four games.
Electric receiver A.J. Green missed the first four games of the season due to NCAA violations. Quarterback Aaron Murray has connected with him 13 times in the last two games for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
“It looks like they are getting back to full strength,” Caldwell said. “Their quarterback is playing extremely well, I think. And now they have the big boy (Green) back. They fling it down there and he is hard to stop. We are going to have to come up with quite a plan to slow that down.”
Despite several bad snaps and two fumbles that bothered Caldwell, Vanderbilt’s offense looked better too.
Smith had a season-high 253 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-27 passing. After two misfires to open receivers in the end zone on a drive in the second quarter, he completed his last eight passes of the first half.
The Commodores had 558 yards of total offense, including 353 passing yards as 11 receivers caught a pass. Zac Stacy and Warren Norman combined for 165 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Defensively, Vanderbilt forced two turnovers and allowed just 209 yards and two field goals.
Again, it was against a team that has the second-longest losing streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But it was a boost for the Commodores, who, before last Saturday, were 3-13 since the start of the 2009 season.
“Confidence is so important when it comes to football,” defensive tackle Rob Lohr, who had a team-high six tackles, said. “If your team is confident, you feel like you can go anywhere and beat anyone. Especially coming into this SEC stretch that we have, it is going to be a huge, huge factor.”
• The Commodores will head to Georgia with a heavy heart as they remember a fallen teammate.
Rajaan Bennett would have been a freshman at Vanderbilt this year but was killed in February after his mother’s ex-boyfriend fired shots in the Bennett family’s home in Powder Springs, Ga.
The 18-year-old Bennett was a four-star recruit running back who rushed for 1,857 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior at McEachern High. Caldwell, however, said Bennett was much more than a football player.
“I just hate the world won’t get to know him like we did,” Caldwell said. “You would be thoroughly impressed. There is none more special than that young man. He wrote papers in the eighth grade and ninth grade that just mirrored exactly what he said he was going to do. And he did it and he accomplished it.”
Caldwell said the university, along with the freshman football class, has plans to remember Bennett publicly and said those would be announced at a later time.
• The defense could still be without several key players for Saturday’s game against Georgia.
Defensive tackle Adam Smotherman has not played all year after tearing his ACL in the spring and is listed as questionable. He will practice on Tuesday. Fellow defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, who has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury, might play, Caldwell said.
Linebacker Chris Marve had arthroscopic surgery on his knee last Wednesday and missed the game against Eastern Michigan. Caldwell said he is still questionable and might practice at the end of week, if at all.