NASHVILLE-- It was a game with a distinctly nautical theme-- but in the end it was a devastating ground assault that prevailed. Coach Paul Johnson's Midshipmen used a precision option offense to roll up 342 rushing yards, as the Naval Academy torpedoed Vanderbilt Saturday, 37-27.
With the win a resurgent Navy team improved to 4-2 and fired a shot that should make bowl representatives wake up and take notice. Meanwhile the Commodores (1-6) dropped their fifth straight game, and their ninth straight vs. Division I-A competition.
With the loss, the Commodores watched any hopes for a winning season sink to the bottom of the abyss. With five games remaining, the best they can now hope for is a .500 regular-season record-- and that would require a season-ending sweep of all five of its SEC East brethren.
The postgame press conference was succinct. "We just got whipped," said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. "We didn't play well. They broke a lot of tackles. We only made them punt twice. When that happens, you can't have any success."
Before a Homecoming crowd of 25,417, the Commodores stormed back from a 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 halftime lead, and took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter. Even after falling behind 27-20 with 4:52 left in the game, it appeared Vandy would have a chance to tie things on the ensuing possession.
But VU's chances for a comeback took a hit to the broadside on Navy's kickoff, when Mid Kevin Newsome crashed into short return man Nick Getter and knocked the ball loose. Shalim Brazier recovered for Navy, and the Mids were able to build a commanding 34-20 lead four plays later when quarterback Craig Candeto hit Jason Tomlinson for a 16-yard score.
"I should have called for a fair catch," said Getter afterwards of the fumbled kickoff. "I just made a big error that probably cost us a chance to win a ball game."
The mishandled kickoff indeed came at a critical time-- but you can chalk this loss up to Vandy's inability to stop a cunning Navy rushing attack in the second half. The Mids held the ball for 21:30 of the game's final 30 minutes in outscoring Vandy 23-10. When the dust cleared, Navy had 502 yards of offense, 342 of which came on the ground.
"Their offense (the triple option) is the hardest to prepare for and the hardest to play against," said linebacker Otis Washington. "They have so much they can do out of their offense, it just keeps you guessing."
"Coach Johnson gave us a great game plan," added defensive end Chris Booker. "We tried to execute it, but we just came up a little short in the end."
For the third straight week, Johnson's Commodores fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter before awakening from their slumber. The Midshipmen scored touchdowns on their first two drives, and it looked as though it might be a long afternoon for the lively, sun-splashed Homecoming crowd.
But in the second quarter the Vandy offense seemed to sense its advantage vs. an undersized Navy defensive line. The Commodores began to move the ball with authority, and scored late in the first quarter on a 25-yard Tolga Ertugrul field goal.
In the second quarter Vandy's defense stopped Navy drives twice-- the only two times of the day-- and the offense assembled touchdown drives of 80 yards and 69 yards. Norval McKenzie scored on a 3-yard run up the middle, and Kwane Doster scored on a 2-yard run with 2:16 left in the half. Navy missed a field goal attempt just before halftime, leaving the Commodores with a 17-14 halftime lead.
Navy tied the game in the third quarter on a 24-yard Eric Rolfs field goal, and Vandy's Ertugrul answered with a 21-yarder to put the Dores up 20-17. But the fourth quarter would be all Navy.
The Midshipmen seized the lead with 13:43 left in the game on a 3-yard run by Craig Candeto. Vandy's offense failed to answer, and the Mids marched 81 yards on a drive that resulted in a field goal and a 27-20 Navy lead.
When Vandy coughed up the ball on the ensuing kickoff, the Mids assembled a short, 28-yard touchdown drive to quash the Homecoming crowd's hopes with 2:50 left.
But Vandy wasn't quite done yet-- Jay Cutler engineered a smart-looking two-minute drill on a 65-yard drive, capped off by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Erik Davis. The Commodores trailed 34-27 with 1:20 left.
Down by 7, the Commodores needed an onsides kick recovery in order to stay alive. They tried a tricky maneuver whereby Abtin Iranmanesh faked a kick to the right, and Nathan True-Daniels squibbed it to the left-- but Navy recovered on the Vandy 49. Rolfs added an academic 33-yard field goal with 24 seconds left.
Led by Jay Cutler (18-of-30 passing for 227 yards and a touchdown), the offense was effective at times. But Vandy essentially had only three possessions in the second half, as Navy's offense worked almost to perfection in consuming the clock with long drives.
"Their offense did what they were supposed to do," said Cutler. They chewed up a lot of time. We were just waiting to get on the field, but we couldn't.
"We are hurt right now. We expected to win this game. But we will win one of these games, a big one. I don't know which one, but we will win one of these games."
The Commodores host Georgia at Vanderbilt Stadium next Saturday at 1:00 p.m., then travel to South Carolina on Oct. 25 before a week off.
Jay Cutler climbed into eighth place on the Vandy career total offense chart with 3,368 yards.
Saturday's game was the third time this season Navy has had 65 rushing attempts. Navy is off to its best start (4-2) since the 1996 season, when the Mids went 9-3 and defeated California in the Aloha Bowl.
In addition to Homecoming, it was also "Military Appreciation Day" Saturday, as the Commodores saluted all branches of the nation's armed forces. A planned flyover of F-14 jets never happened, however.