James Franklin practiced what he preached.
For nearly nine months since his hiring as Vanderbilt’s football coach, Franklin reiterated time and time again that the Commodores would be aggressive. On Saturday night in his head coaching debut, he backed up his talk.
Three times Vanderbilt went for it on fourth down. It converted all three and extended what turned out to be scoring drives in a 45-14 season-opening victory against Elon at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“We've talked about being aggressive since I got here,” Franklin said. “I felt comfortable with that. They hadn't stopped us once. We really stopped ourselves with things. We're going to be aggressive. We are going to do that all year long.”
The biggest payoff came when quarterback Larry Smith faked a handoff on fourth-and-3 and cruised in for a 16-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter. Fourteen seconds later, cornerback Trey Wilson jumped a route and intercepted Thomas Wilson’s screen pass. He returned it 21 yards for a touchdown to give the Commodores a 21-7 lead.
But Franklin set the tone on his second drive when the game was still scoreless.
Faced with a fourth-and-5 on its own 39 , the Commodores’ offense stayed on the field. Smith found a wide-open Brandon Barden over the middle for a 14-yard gain. Four plays later, Fitz Lassing hauled in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Smith.
“He has confidence in us,” Smith said. “I'm glad he does and we did a good job of having his back [Saturday].”
In the third quarter, they converted a fourth-and-1 at the Elon 46 with a four-yard gain by running back Micah Powell. They made that one pay off when sophomore kicker Carey Spear booted his first career field goal – a 33-yarder – for a 24-14 lead.
“I hope that we can improve our third-down percentage and I don't have to go for it as many times on fourth down,” Franklin said. “But we are going to do whatever we have to do to steal the momentum and create opportunities for the offense.”
The fourth-down decisions can also be viewed another way.
“He apparently has confidence in the defense,” linebacker Chris Marve said.
After building momentum on fourth-down risks, the Commodores used the fourth quarter to blow out the Phoenix.
Wide receiver Chris Boyd’s first career catch, an 11-yard touchdown reception from Smith, was the first of three scores in a four-minute span. Cornerback Casey Hayward picked off a pass on the next drive, which preceded running back-turned-receiver Wesley Tate’s 23 yard touchdown run on an end around. Backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers then fired a laser – his first career pass since transferring last year – to Boyd for a 30-yard touchdown for a 31-point lead with 9:12 left.
“We're not the old Vanderbilt,” Boyd said. “We are a new team. We are going to come out here and compete and win some games here.”
The Commodores did repeat one of last year’s trends – they lost the time-of-possession battle 35:30-24:30. Even with six touchdowns Franklin five points were too many.
Vanderbilt finished last in the Southeastern Conference in 2010 in time of possession (26:57). That led directly to a lot of the Commodores offensive woes. They ranked 110th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivisions in total offense.
Against Elon, however, their longest scoring drive was 4:28 -- the one that included Powell's run on fourth down -- and they had three that lasted under 80 seconds.
“It definitely feels great to see the offense producing and putting points up like that,” Wilson said. “That not only helps the defense as far as getting us a break but them putting points up is helping their momentum and motivation.”