Early in the fourth quarter, a familiar, unwanted feeling spread across Vanderbilt Stadium.
All of a sudden, the Commodores’ 11-point lead against Connecticut turned into a seven-point deficit. The 32,119 in attendance had seen this before. This was the story of the last two 2-10 seasons: the negative moments were outweighing the bright spots.
The Commodores, however, changed things. They scored the last 10 points and Carey Spear kicked a 31-yard field goal with 2:56 left for a 24-21 victory over Connecticut on Saturday night.
For the first time in nearly two years, Vanderbilt (2-0) rallied for a win. It also marked the first time since 2008 — when it won the Music City Bowl — the team has won two straight games.
“We were going to win the game. That is what we do,” Vanderbilt’s first-year coach James Franklin said. “I went down the sideline and reminded the whole team: This is the 2011 Vanderbilt. This is the 2011 Vanderbilt. This is the 2011 Vanderbilt ... over and over and over again. We have been talking about it since Dec. 17. So we weren't going to allow that to happen. They invested too much. They have put too much into it and we were going to find a way to persevere.”
Less than five minutes into the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt trailed 21-14 after Connecticut (1-1) sacked quarterback Larry Smith, forcing a fumble. Yawin Smallwood returned it 64 yards for a touchdown.
But the Commodores’ defense, which forced four turnovers and had five sacks, bailed out the offense on the next Huskies’ drive. Casey Hayward intercepted a pass from Johnny McEntee — one of three quarterbacks for UConn — and returned it 50 yards, racing across the field near the opposite sideline, receiving a couple blocks as he crossed the end zone. It was the senior’s 10th career interception — he is ninth all-time in school history — and first collegiate touchdown. Even bigger, though it tied the game at 21-21 with 6:45 left.
“I didn't think he was going to throw the ball to my side,” Hayward said. “When he did, there was a lot of space after the interception. The defense, they picked up a lot of key blocks for me to get in the end zone. You got to score. If you get a pick, [Franklin] says not to go out of bounds, try to go and score. And that is what I tried to do.”
After the defense forced a Connecticut punt, the offense capitalized. On his first six carries, Zac Stacy had -1 yards. His seventh rush went for 48 — the biggest run of the young season. It moved the Commodores to the Huskies’ 15-yard line and set up Spear’s game-winning kick.
“It was just a play that was needed,” Stacy said. “We needed more big plays on offense and we just got it at the right time.”
Wearing black helmets for the first time since 1990, Vanderbilt scored twice in the first quarter. The first came on a 42-yard pass from Smith to wide receiver Chris Boyd. The second was a 40-yard run by true freshman Jerron Seymour that gave the Commodores’ a 14-3 lead.
They took that lead into halftime. But Connecticut breathed new life in the third quarter after forcing a turnover. Huskies safety Jerome Junior tipped a Larry Smith pass that deflected into the hands of Jory Johnson. He returned it to the Vanderbilt 17-yard line. The Commodores’ defense held up, though, forcing Connecticut to settle for a 28-yard field goal.
Vanderbilt’s next drive also went nowhere. On the first play, Smith was tackled hard on a two-yard gain that was negated by an illegal block in the back penalty. He exited the field and Jordan Rodgers replaced him, which Franklin said was planned. But the offense backed up 14 yards to their own 9-yard line. This brought on punter Richard Kent, who was blocked by Byron Jones. He recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 14-13 with 7:47 left in the third quarter.
Vanderbilt’s defense gave up only 193 total yards, including a mere 89 rushing. On offense, the Commodores totaled 259 yards but allowed seven sacks. Smith was 12-of-24 with for 140 yards and two interceptions. They were also penalized 11 times for 81 yards. Still, it was enough for Franklin to become the first Vanderbilt coach to win his first two games since Fred Pancoast in 1975.
“It wasn't pretty but it is a ‘W,’” Franklin said. “It is probably more important that we found a way to win a tough game, in a tough situation and fought through adversity... Guys stepped up and made plays.”
• Injuries: Chase White started at left guard in place of Jabo Burrow. Franklin said the junior’s career is over due to undisclosed injuries.
“He won’t be playing football any more,” Franklin said. “He is still going to be a part of our team.”
Tight end Brandon Barden suffered a lower left leg injury during an 18-yard run by Seymour. He did not return to the field but was on crutches and wore an orthopedic boot on the sidelines. Franklin said he was unsure of the severity of the injury. Running back Warren Norman (knee) did not play for the second straight game. Franklin said earlier in the week Norman could have played but “we prefer to get him as much time [off] as we possibly could.”