North Carolina State kept offering up gifts, but Vanderbilt wasn’t seeing any immediate return.
So the Commodores decided to veer away from the norm – and get wild.
After failing to capitalize on the Wolfpack’s first two turnovers, Vanderbilt put the ball directly in the hands of Zac Stacy. He didn’t waste the third takeaway by the defense. His six-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation in the second quarter sparked a 38-24 victory in the Music City Bowl on Monday at LP Field.
The senior was named the Most Valuable Player as he rushed 25 times for 107 yards with 79 coming out of the wildcat.
“You mean the wild Zac?” wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “Goodness gracious. I mean you just give him the ball. We could have let him kick [Monday] and he would have done great. Any way you get the ball in his hands or around him it is going to work.”
The wildcat formation proved effective for the Commodores (9-4). Of the team’s 68 plays, more than fourth (19) came with a tailback taking a direct snap. Offensive coordinator John Donovan rode the formation over two straight series in the second quarter, which included Stacy’s touchdown. They ran plays out of the direct snap seven of nine times.
Stacy, who finished the season with 1,141 rushing yards and now owns the top two rushing seasons in school history, touched the ball on eight straight plays. The ninth went to Wesley Tate, who shed a one-handed tackle and scampered seven yards to give Vanderbilt a 21-7 lead.
“It is pretty much one of those things don’t fix nothing if it is not broke,” said Stacy, who also threw an incomplete pass out of the scheme. “We did a great job on the offense of executing [Monday], especially in the running game. We can run and throw.”
The offense sputtered on drives directly after N.C. State’s first two turnovers. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers was stopped on fourth down and the Commodores went three-and-out on its next drive.
So when Darreon Herring forced a fumble that Kenny Ladler returned to the Wolfpack 27-yard line, Donovan turned to his ground game. Stacy accounted for all 27 yards, starting with a 14-yard run on a direct snap.
“I think people try to make the game of football a lot tougher than what it is,” coach James Franklin said. “I think coaches get affected by calling plays that they think are sexy, that the fans or recruits are going to like. We are going to do whatever we got to win. It was working and we’re going to keep running until you adjust and stop it. If not, we’re going to keep doing it. We were able to do that [Monday].”
• Nice ending: Eric Samuels capped off his career the way he started it – with an interception.
Playing in his final collegiate game, the strong safety picked off a Mike Glennon pass with 54 seconds left in the half. The takeaway resulted in a touchdown as Vanderbilt staked a 28-14 halftime lead. It was his first interception since his college debut in the 2009 season opener against Western Carolina.
• Kickoff déjà vu: For the second straight bowl, the Commodores allowed a kickoff return to go the distance.
After muffing two previous kickoffs, Tobais Palmer field the ball cleanly and blazed down the field, untouched for a 94-yard touchdown to trim the deficit 21-14 with 3:35 left in the first half. In last year’s Liberty Bowl, Ralph Abernathy IV ran back a kickoff for 90 yards that proved to be the difference in a 31-24 win for Cincinnati.
The Commodores haven’t allowed a kickoff for a touchdown in the regular season since 2008.
• Backup heave: Austyn Carta-Samuels made a brief appearance in the fourth quarter.
Leading 31-17, Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback lined up at wide receiver and took a lateral from starter Jordan Rodgers. He then heaved a shot to Matthews, which was broken up. Carta-Samuels has enjoyed postseason success before. As a freshman at Wyoming in 2009, he was named the New Mexico Bowl offensive MVP.