Vanderbilt improved to 1-2, 1-1 in Southeastern Conference play. Ole Miss fell to 1-2, 0-1. It was the Commodores’ first SEC win since the Kentucky game of 2008. The Commodores have won four of the last six meetings vs. the Rebels.
Vanderbilt took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and never trailed thereafter. The Commodore defense produced three key turnovers, including two timely interceptions of Rebel quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. And the Commodore offense, humbled one week before in a 27-3 loss to LSU, rebounded to grind out 227 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“I was so excited, not for me but for these players,” Caldwell said. “If you could see the faces of these players in that locker room right now, that’s worth more than money to me.
“It’s hard to describe. It had been a while since we’d tasted a ‘W’,“ continued Caldwell, who also received the first Gatorade shower of his head coaching career. “[The Gatorade] was cold, but it tasted good. I’d take that every week.”
The Vanderbilt offensive line, much maligned after surrendering six sacks to LSU, allowed only one to Ole Miss, and opened holes for a ground attack that averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Starting quarterback Larry Smith threw for only 73 yards, as the Commodores kept things largely on the ground, but averaged 7 yards per rushing attempt and scored the game-clinching touchdown on a fake handoff.
“[The win] was huge for us as far as confidence goes heading into the bye week," said Smith. "The running backs ran the ball excellent, the offensive line opened up holes for them and the receivers got open. It was an overall team effort by the offense and defense.
"We feel like we just got a big monkey off our shoulders," said Zac Stacy, who rushed for 46 yards and a touchdown. "It was just good to come out and beat a team like Ole Miss. They are a good team."
After sleep-walking through a scoreless first quarter, the offense abruptly switched to a hurry-up, no-huddle offense midway through the second quarter that put Ole Miss on its heels. Using almost no time between plays, the Commodores put together a picture-perfect 13-play, 96-yard touchdown drive. Stacy capped it off with a 35-yard run up the middle, and the Commodores led for the first time all season.
“They were very physical up front, so we tried to out-pace them a little bit,” Caldwell said of the offense’s change of pace. “We did, and we were able to punch it in there.
“We’re in great condition. We knew we were in better shape than them. We were going to try to turn up the heat, and we did just that.”
The Commodores had to punt on their next drive. But on Ole Miss’ first play, Eddie Foster picked off Masoli in full stride, returning the ball 21 yards for a “pick-six.” Vanderbilt led 14-0, and the partisan Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd was momentarily stunned.
Ole Miss would answer with a touchdown on its last possession of the half, set up by a long pass from Masoli to Jesse Grandy. Korvic Neat scored on a 4-yard sweep, as the Rebs cut the lead to 14-7.
Vandy got the ball first in the second half but couldn’t score. Ole Miss tied the game on a 66-yard drive, capped a 28-yard Masoli touchdown run. The nimble Masoli spun away from tacklers in the backfield before turning upfield.
But Vanderbilt’s answer was immediate. On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Warren Norman burst up the middle and went 80 yards untouched to put the Commodores up 21-14. It was the longest run of his career.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Richard Kent’s punt pinned Ole Miss at its own 7. The Rebs promptly fumbled, and Vandy’s Kenny Ladler recovered at the 15. The Commodores would capitalize on the very next play.
On first down, Smith faked a handoff to Norman, and the entire defense bought the fake. Smith pranced 15 yards into the end zone for the back-breaking score.
Ole Miss still had time for a rally, but the Vanderbilt defense stiffened. Casey Hayward’s interception of a last-gasp Masoli pass—- in which Hayward took the ball away from intended receiver Neat—- effectively ended the game.
“We just talked with the players about keeping on chopping away at it,” Caldwell said. “We were able to overcome some big penalties today.”
“It's a very disappointing loss. I feel like we wasted away many opportunities in this game and we just can't do that,” said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt. “When you hustle to get tied up and then fumble the ball, it really hurts."
The Commodores take a week off before heading to Hartford, Conn. for a contest against Big East foe Connecticut. Kickoff time and TV arrangements have not yet been announced.
Defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone (ankle), safety Jay Fullam (foot) and tight end Brandon Barden (ankle) all left the game with injuries at different points. Greenstone was injured on the game’s first series and did not return. He was observed on crutches in the second half. Fullam, who had been struggling all week with an injury, was replaced for most of the game with true freshman Kenny Ladler.
Vanderbilt is now 3-2 all-time vs. Houston Nutt, including a 2005 win when Nutt was at Arkansas.