FORT WORTH-- Saturday was a day of upsets around the nation, and an upset-minded Vanderbilt team came to Texas Saturday to face 20th-ranked but injury-plagued TCU. But behind remarkable debut performances from quarterback Brandon Hassell and tailback Robert Merrill, the Horned Frogs held off the Commodores 30-14 before 37,192 fans at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Hassell, making his first start ever in place of sidelined starter Tye Gunn, performed like a seasoned veteran in passing for 227 yards and a touchdown. Merrill, a third-string redshirt freshman who had not carried the ball in a college game before, rushed an amazing 29 times for 123 yards and wore down the Vandy defense in the second half.
For the Commodores, it was just another promising but missed opportunity. Vandy had taken a 14-7 lead with 12:20 to go in the second quarter, but the Commodore offense sputtered for the rest of the evening. The deadly duo of Vandy turnovers (four) and penalties (a season-high 11 for 115 yards) helped the Horned Frogs roar from behind with 23 unanswered points.
Vandy dropped to 1-3, while the No. 20 Horned Frogs of Conference USA stayed unbeaten at 3-0.
Bobby Johnson gave credit to the Frogs and their head coach, Gary Patterson. "They've got a good team, especially on defense," said Johnson. "We had a hard time blocking their tackles on pass, and by that time we needed to pass. They're a tough team."
The Horned Frogs committed 14 penalties for 138 yards themselves, and looked at times like a sloppy team. But behind the accuracy of Hassell and the relentless running of Merrill, TCU outgained Vandy 409-330 and won the time-of-possession war and turnover war.
TCU drew first blood in the first quarter shortly after safety Marvin Godbolt made a circus interception of a Cutler pass that bounced off Brandon Smith's hands. A penalty nullified Godbolt's score on the return, but Lonta Hobbs scored two plays later on a 7-yard option pitch play, and TCU led 7-0.
Vandy would soon create a turnover of its own and tie the game-- defensive end Jovan Haye picked off a Hassell pass and returned it ten yards to the TCU 27. On Vandy's first subsequent play, Kwane Doster took an option pitch into the end zone for six; Tolga Ertrugrul's PAT made it 7-7.
Vandy would go on to take the lead when Cutler struck Brandon Smith on a 43-yard post pattern. Smith, who had made good separation from his defender, hauled in Cutler's pass at the TCU 2 on a dead run and sprinted across the goal line to give Vandy a 14-7 lead.
The lead would prove to be short-lived, however. TCU marched 88 yards in 19 plays, and settled for a Nick Browne field goal with 5:32 left in the half. The Horned Frogs then pounced on a Norval McKenzie fumble on Vandy's next offensive possession, and scored like lightning on the next play, when Merrill darted 18 yards up the middle for a score. TCU had scored 10 points in 24 seconds.
The Commodore offense accomplished little on its final two possessions of the first half, and TCU's 17-14 lead held up through halftime. Vandy went to the locker room with the game in striking distance, as the Commodores realized 14 of TCU's 17 points had come on short drives after turnovers.
The second half started ominously. Aided by a pass interference penalty against Vanderbilt, TCU drove 54 yards for another Browne field goal. The Commodores drove the ball to the TCU 19, but Tolga Ertugrul's only field goal attempt of the night, a 36-yarder, was wide by a narrow margin.
Early in the fourth quarter Browne tacked on a 50-yard field goal to stretch the lead to 23-14. The Commodores came close to a score when Cutler found Erik Davis for a 43-yard bomb, but TCU's Mark Walker saved a TD by knocking the ball out of Davis' hands.
Still within striking distance, the Commodore offense was unable to assemble a drive in the final quarter; meanwhile Hassell threw a 17-yard touchdown to Quentily Harmon with 4:31 left to complete the scoring. On Vandy's final possession Cutler, passing from the shotgun, drove the team to a first-and-goal at the TCU 8, but Vandy turned the ball over on downs.
Cutler threw for a career-high 250 yards, but threw two interceptions early in the game and couldn't seem to spark the offense in the second half.
"I struggled-- I didn't get the job done today," said Cutler. "We had a good game plan. We just killed ourselves. They just sat back there and did exactly what we thought they were going to do. We just didn't execute."
Vanderbilt (1-3) returns home next Saturday for a 6 p.m. game vs. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets fell to 1-3 Saturday after suffering a surprising 39-3 home loss to Clemson.
- Defensive end Jovan Haye turned in by far his most impressive performance as a Commodore-- the sophomore from Fort Lauderdale was a constant disrupting force in the TCU backfield. He registered four tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a sack, an interception and a pass breakup. He banged the quarterback numerous times, and laid a vicious hit that knocked tailback Lonta Hobbs out of the game.
"Jovan goes hard every play, and tries to do his very best," said Johnson. "If we had more Jovan Hayes, we'd be in good shape."
- For the second week in a row, Vanderbilt had a member of the kickoff team injured while throwing a block on the flying wedge. Marty Morgan hurt his left ankle early in the first quarter and did not return; one week previous, Dan Murphy had suffered a concussion on a similar play.
- Starting tackle Kenan Arkan and tight end Curtis Brancheau (from nearby Greenville, Texas) both missed the game with high ankle sprains. Arkan was replaced at right tackle by true freshman Brian Stamper, while Nick Getter got the start at tight end.
- Norval McKenzie got his first start of the season at tailback over Kwane Doster, but both backs saw plenty of playing time. McKenzie had 44 yards to Doster's 36, but Doster had the night's longest run, 27 yards for a touchdown.
- Vanderbilt opened the game in an unorthodox double-slot formation not seen since last season, and Jay Cutler picked up 16 yards out of it on the game's first play. The formation was subsequently tried a time or two.
- TCU was already playing at a handicap without the services of starting quarterback Tye Gunn and running back Ricky Madison. The Frogs suffered another blow in the first quarter when a low tackle by Jovan Haye injured the shin of starting tailback Lonta Hobbs. Hobbs did not return.
- Conference USA owns an impressive 5-1 record this season vs. the Southeastern Conference. Before this weekend, Louisville owned a win over Kentucky, Memphis had defeated Ole Miss, and Tulane had defeated Mississippi State. On Saturday TCU defeated Vanderbilt and Houston defeated Mississippi State, but UAB lost to South Carolina.
- TCU kicker Nick Browne had kicked a 50-yard field goal twice previously in his career before he did it again in the fourth quarter Saturday.