Needing an impressive win to keep pace with national title contenders Oklahoma and LSU, both of which had already won impressively Saturday, Nick Saban's team seemed lethargic through most of the first half. But Alabama scored just before halftime to go up 14-0, then flexed its considerable muscle in the second half to leave the flustered Commodores in the dust.
The Tide's world-class defense, lauded this week by Sports Illustrated as perhaps the finest in school history, never so much as allowed the Commodores into the red zone. Meanwhile the Alabama offense, though slow getting warmed up, eventually outgained Vanderbilt's 419-190 and controlled the ball for virtually the entire second half.
"We made some adjustments and played a lot better in the second half," said Saban, unamused by his team's lackluster first-half performance. "We certainly have a lot of things we need to improve on, and we will continue to work on that. Everybody’s got to take the same ownership and responsibility to do that so we can get better as a team."
"I thought our defense played well, but they got worn down because they were on the field too long," said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who suffered through his first shutout as a head coach. "We also didn’t do a great job on third down, and our offense was inconsistent.
"We will get this fixed though. We’re going to stay positive and stick to our plan by recruiting well."
Starting quarterback Larry Smith came up limping after a run up the middle in the first quarter, and junior transfer Jordan Rodgers replaced him for the remainder of the game. Rodgers had some success moving the team in the first half and finished 11-of-18 passing, but threw a pair of costly second-half interceptions.
"[Smith] has got a lower leg injury," Franklin said in the postgame. "He could have come back if we needed him to, but I felt like we would give Jordan an opportunity to see what he can do. I thought Jordan did some things well, but we have got to eliminate the negative plays."
The Commodore defense came into the game leading the country in interceptions with 14, but this week came up empty on turnovers. Perhaps the most telling statistic was third-down conversions, where Alabama was 12-of-17, while Vanderbilt was a meager 1-of-10.
Alabama drew first blood midway through the first quarter, when McCarron threw a 6-yard scoring pass to tight end Brad Smelley. The TD capped a 77-yard drive and put the Tide up 7-0.
The score remained 7-0 through nearly the whole first half, as both teams sparred with each other, but neither could score. Vandy's Carey Spear missed on a pair of field goals (from 48 and 33 yards) that could have pulled the Commodores within one.
With the crowd growing restless, the Tide rallied late in the half for another long touchdown drive. McCarron found DeAndrew White in the back of the end zone with 0:32 left for a momentum-shifting touchdown.
On its first possession of the third quarter Alabama went almost exclusively to its punishing rushing attack and ground out a 94-yard drive that expanded the lead to a forbidding 21-0. The Tide struck again late in the third when McCarron connected with White on a perfectly thrown 39-yard strike. Ironically, Alabama's Jeremy Shelley missed the PAT attempt, breaking a long string of successful conversions.
Alabama turned Dee Millner's interception of a Rodgers deep pass into its final touchdown with 12:16 left in the game. From that point on, Saban largely played his substitutes and mercifully tried to run out the clock.
"Vanderbilt has a great team," said Saban. "They are doing a good job with their team. They play hard and create a lot of problems for you on offense and do a lot of things to take advantage and play well with the guys they have."
After dropping a pair of games on the road, the Commodores return to Vanderbilt Stadium next Saturday, where they are still undefeated under James Franklin. Vanderbilt will face divisional foe Georgia at 6 pm CT in a game scheduled for Fox Sports Net TV. The Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 SEC) moved into the driver's seat for the SEC East crown Saturday with a 20-12 win over Tennessee.
Logan Stewart started at center in a re-tooled offensive line for the Commodores. Wesley Johnson moved from center to left tackle, while Ryan Seymour shifted inside from tackle to guard. The offensive line did not surrender a sack all evening against Alabama's vaunted defensive front.
Besides Smith, a number of Vanderbilt players left the game with injuries, including defensive end Tim Fugger, tight end Mason Johnston, and defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone. Franklin said only one injury appeared to be of long-term concern, but he declined to specify which one.