STARKVILLE, Miss.-- Mississippi State had never opened a season 0-5 in its 125-year football history-- and it still hasn't. Vanderbilt fell behind early, and came back to make things interesting in the second half, but ultimately succumbed to Jackie Sherrill's Bulldogs 30-21 Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
For Vanderbilt (1-5, 0-3 SEC), a date with the struggling Bulldogs looked like just the tonic for ending a nine-game road losing streak and a 19-game conference losing streak. But the Vandy offense sputtered in the first quarter in falling behind 14-0, and though the Commodores battled from behind in the second half, the deficit proved too much to overcome.
Mississippi State (1-4, 1-1) hurt itself with 11 penalties for 112 yards, including a number of costly personal fouls at inopportune times. But the Bulldogs held Vanderbilt to -25 yards rushing in the first half in jumping out to a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Commodores regained some momentum in the second half and cut State's lead to 17-14, and 27-21 with 9:07 left, but failed to put points on the board on several key possessions late in the game.
"We battled all day long," said Commodore head coach Bobby Johnson. "I was disappointed in how we started the game. We need to have the same intensity at the first of the game that we had through the rest of it.
"We had a real gut-check today. We made some adjustments along the way, and we're very capable when we execute the right thing in the right time. We just didn't react well to adversity early."
The Commodores squandered two scoring opportunities in the first half-- twice they penetrated inside the State 11-yard-line, only to come away without points. In the third quarter Vandy pushed the ball to the State 13, only to turn the ball over on downs.
Jerious Norwood (113 yards on 22 carries) and Nick Turner (90 yards on 12 carries) led a solid Bulldog ground game. Kwane Doster had his best game of the season with 50 rushing yards, while Norval McKenzie led the way for Vandy with 89.
After a short Vanderbilt punt out of the end zone gave Mississippi State the ball at the Vandy 41, State grabbed a 7-0 lead six plays later on a 5-yard pitch play to tailback Jerious Norwood.
The Commodores drove to the Mississippi State 8, but turned the ball over when a third-down Bulldog blitz forced a fumble by Jay Cutler. The Bulldogs then drove 75 yards for their second touchdown-- it came when Kevin Fant hit a wide-open Justin Jenkins from the Vandy 15.
Just as it had done the previous week vs. Georgia Tech, the Commodores had fallen behind 14-0 in the first quarter. But just as it had also done week earlier, the Vandy defense stiffened in the second quarter, and the offense gathered itself.
Vanderbilt earned its first score when Cutler found Mississippi native Chris Young for a 33-yard touchdown strike. Tolga Ertugrul's extra point cut the lead to 14-7 with 13:49 left in the second quarter.
The Commodores followed that up with a nice-looking 50-yard drive that took the ball to the Mississippi State 11. But Johnson went for it on fourth-and-one from the 11, and an option play came up just inches short of the first-down marker.
The Bulldogs responded by driving the ball 88 yards to the Vandy 2, but were backed up to the 17 by a blatant personal foul penalty called on State lineman Chris McNeil. The Bulldogs had to settle for a 34-yard Brent Smith field goal that stretched State's lead at halftime to 17-7.
After an emotional plea from Johnson at halftime, Vanderbilt turned up the intensity early in the third quarter. After a third-down sack by Jovan Haye knocked State out of field goal range, the Commodores put together their best drive of the day to cut the lead to 17-14. A pass interference call on MSU gave Vandy the ball at the Bulldog 2, and Norval McKenzie scored the touchdown.
Mississippi State added another field goal by Smith, a 45-yarder, and then seized the momentum back when Odell Bradley picked off a Cutler pass at the Vandy 40 and returned it to the 4. Fant scored on the next play on a sweep, and suddenly the Bullies were up by a commanding 27-14.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Commodores wasted another golden opportunity when Cutler threw an incompletion on fourth-and-one from the Bulldog 13. But the Commodores would quickly get the ball back when Libnir Telusca's rush forced Fant to throw an interception to Andrew Pace at the Bulldog 29. With 9:07 left, Cutler found Erik Davis in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-6 from the State 24 for what would be Vandy's final touchdown.
Vandy's defense held Mississippi State to a field goal on its next possession. The Commodores drove to the Bulldog 37, but their chances to win the game effectively ended a few plays later when Cutler fumbled after a run up the middle. Vandy would get the ball back once more after a State fumble, but efforts to mount another score proved futile.
The win was a crucial one for Bulldog coach Jackie Sherrill, who was under enormous pressure after going 6-20 in State's last 26 games.
"To the players, there is a relief," said Sherrill. "Now we can take what we have and move on, one game at a time."
Vanderbilt returns home next Saturday for a 1:00 p.m. CT Homecoming matchup vs. the Naval Academy. Navy improved to 3-2 Saturday with a 28-25 upset over Air Force. The Midshipmen are coached by Paul Johnson, Bobby Johnson's old nemesis from Southern Conference days.
- Mississippi State was called at least three times for personal fouls for late hits, a couple of which happened out-of-bounds and well after the whistle had blown. "I thought a lot of the hits Jay took were late," said Bobby Johnson afterwards. "They only called one or two."
- Strong safety Andrew Pace had his finest day as a Commodore. Besides his 14 total tackles, 13 of which were credited as solo, Pace came up with two turnovers in the fourth quarter, one of which led to Vanderbilt's final touchdown. The Birmingham native intercepted Kevin Fant with 10:11 to play, and forced and recovered a fumble with two minutes left.
- Receiver Brandon Smith turned in another solid performance with nine catches for 124 yards, both of which were career highs. "We've just got to put this loss behind us and get ready for Homecoming next week," said Smith. "Coach Johnson told us it was going to be a dogfight to the very end, and he was right. We just didn't make enough big plays."
- Sophomore quarterback Jay Cutler had a good day statistically-- the sophomore hit 22 of 35 passes for a career high of 295 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
"Jay is tough competitor," said Johnson. "He was getting the heck knocked out of him today. He had great day percentage-wise."
His percentage might have been even higher, had it not been for a rash of dropped passes by Vandy's receivers.
"That was uncharacteristic for our receivers," Cutler said. "They are one of the best groups in the SEC. I know those drops hurt them as much as they hurt me, but we can't make those kind of mistakes and expect to win."