NASHVILLE-- It was one of those rare nights at Vanderbilt Stadium when everything seemed to go right-- well, almost. On a pristine September evening for football, the Commodores pounded the visiting Chattanooga Mocs into submission, 51-6... Bobby Johnson's staff was able to substitute liberally in the second half... and a partisan crowd went home in high spirits.
Afforded a rare cushy opponent early in their schedule, Johnson's new-attitude Commodores took full advantage and feasted on cupcake. The offense set high-water marks for the Johnson era for total offense (539 yards) and points (51). The defense, meanwhile, pitched a shutout (UTC's lone touchdown came on a kickoff return) and held the Mocs to a meager 93 yards of offense.
For Vanderbilt, the win snapped a five-game losing streak going back to last season.
"I'm proud of our team for doing what we're supposed to do to win the football game," Johnson said. "I think we came out in good spirits and got a good lead and learned a little bit about some people."
The decisive win was Vandy's biggest since a 58-0 win over another Division I-AA foe, The Citadel, in 1999. It raised Commodore fans' hopes in anticipation of next week's matchup with an Auburn team which has so far failed miserably to live up to lofty preseason expectations.
The one-sided contest left the 26,176 spectators wondering aloud, is Vanderbilt this good, or is Chattanooga (0-2) this bad? Mocs' rookie coach Rodney Allison felt this is the best team Vanderbilt has produced in some time.
"Vanderbilt is very well-coached," Allison said. "I respect the way that Bobby Johnson is running this program. They are better than they have been in a while."
By halftime, Bobby Johnson's team had the game well in hand at 41-6-- and it could have been much worse. A Jay Cutler fumble inside the UTC 10 had killed one drive; a roughing-the-kicker penalty had kept a UTC drive going; Jason Caldwell had dropped a touchdown pass late in the second quarter; and a Cutler-to-Marlon White touchdown pass was nullified by an illegal procedure penalty.
But in spite of those and a few other miscues, Vandy managed to outgain the Mocs by a staggering 358-50 in the first half. There were highlights aplenty for the crowd to savor.
Less than four minutes into the game, on Vandy's first drive, Kwane Doster fumbled on two straight running plays from the UTC 1-yard-line. But Jay Cutler alertly scooped up the second one and ducked into the end zone for Vandy's first six points-- an omen, perhaps, that most things would go right for the Commodores on this night.
Surprisingly, the Dores went for a two-point conversion after their first score, and Matthew Tant's run to the left came up short. But on Vandy's next possession Tant would score a touchdown on a one-yard run to conclude a six-play, 49-yard drive.
The Mocs' only score came on the ensuing kickoff, an 88-yard return by Ebrahim Tehrani that pulled UTC back to within 13-6. The big return left Bobby Johnson fuming, but he needn't have worried-- Vandy's offense proceeded to reel off 21 unanswered points.
First Cutler found Erik Davis on a 23-yard post route for a score; Doster redeemed his earlier fumbles by scoring on a two-yard run; and Norval McKenzie took a misdirection pitch 24 yards for a score. With 9:36 left in the first half, the Dores were up by a shocking 34-6.
Next cornerback Dominique Morris got the defense into the act with an interception return that pushed Vandy's lead to 41-6 at halftime. Morris timed his break perfectly on a Matthew Lopez pass in the flats, and took it 47 yards to the house.
"I kind of thought they might try that play," said Morris. "It was a three-deep pattern that they had attempted three times earlier. I just guessed right on that one, but it felt great going into the end zone."
With the lead up to a safe 34 points, Bobby Johnson's staff began reaching deep into the depth chart. Neither team scored in the third quarter. With Benji Walker at quarterback and Ronald Hatcher and Jason Bourque seeing time at tailback, the Vanderbilt offense went to a conservative run-run-pass attack.
Commodore fans perhaps got a glimpse of the future in the fourth quarter. Redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Bright drove the offense to the Chattanooga 10, and on third down hit true freshman Marlon White on a slant pass for a TD. It was the first touchdown for both Bright and White, and it pushed Vandy's lead to 48-6.
"You learn about the backups," Johnson said. "We've still got a lot of work to do with the people that will spell our starters in certain situations. This is great training. It's hard to get that done in practice, especially with backups. Some of them have to react better, but some of them reacted pretty well."
Late in the game, the only thing left undone was getting in a field goal attempt for Tolga Ertugrul. The walk-on placekicker had already made good on six extra points but had missed badly on his only field goal attempt the week before. The opportunity finally came with 4:32 left in the game, and Ertugrul's 38-yard attempt soared through the uprights with plenty of distance to spare.
Tailback Norval McKenzie led Vandy in rushing with an impressive 102 yards on 16 carries (6.4 yards per carry) and a touchdown. It was the second time in his career the sophomore had gone over the century mark.
"I was pleased with the performance, but I can't take the credit," said McKenzie. "The offensive line did a great job. We need to continue to improve."
In the third game of three-game homestand, the Commodores (1-1, 0-1 SEC) host Tommy Tuberville's Auburn Tigers next Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Auburn, the media's preseason pick to win the SEC, will enter the game 0-2 after losing a road game to Georgia Tech Saturday. The game will be televised regionally by Jefferson-Pilot.
GAME NOTES: True freshmen who saw their first action for Vanderbilt vs. Chattanooga included offensive linemen Tom Sorensen and Brian Stamper, defensive end Jonathan Loyte, and defensive back Darnell Martemus. Redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Bright and redshirt freshman tailback Ron Bullock also made their first appearances.
Seven different receivers recorded receptions, including Marlon White, Jason Caldwell and Paul Meadows, who each had their first collegiate receptions. White, a true freshman, wound up with six catches and a touchdown. Walk-on receivers Walter Clark, Jason Burns and Marc Effren all played but did not record a catch.
Cornerback Bill Alford sat out the game for unspecified reasons after starting and playing most of the game vs. Ole Miss. The Commodores played an uncharacteristic defensive alignment with five defensive backs for most of the first half vs. Chattanooga.
Injuries: Tight end Nick Getter missed the game with a hamstring injury. Fullback Zeke Brandon (shoulder) and defensive lineman Ralph McKenzie (ankle) both left the game hurt and did not return.
Jay Cutler connected with Brandon Smith on a 59-yard completion, Vanderbilt's longest play from scrimmage of the year, in the first half. The ball traveled most of the 59 yards in the air.
One special teams area that needs attention in practice this week: the kickoff team. Chattanooga burned Vanderbilt for 237 yards on seven kickoff returns-- including an 87-yard return for a touchdown-- for an average of 34 yards per return.
Nathan True-Daniels did kickoffs in the first half, Abtin Iranmanesh in the second half.
Vanderbilt's media relations staff went searching for the last time the Commodores had held a team under 100 yards... it's been so long, they had to give up after about 30 minutes of searching.
Photo of Dominique Morris by Mark Humphrey, Associated Press. Photo of Blake Luker, Brian Stamper, Kenan Arkan and Paul Meadows, holding helmets aloft, by Brent Wiseman for VandyMania, copyright 2003.