NASHVILLE-- An inspired Vanderbilt defense turned in a masterful first-half performance and managed to hold a shell-shocked Georgia offense scoreless for a half. But Coach Mark Richt's fourth-ranked Bulldogs roared back from an improbable 2-0 halftime deficit Saturday to defeat the Commodores, 27-8, before 27,823 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The "Vanderbilt 2, Georgia 0" halftime score undoubtedly caused shock waves as it reverberated around the nation. Here were the Commodores, losers of 20 straight SEC games and losers to lowly Navy the previous week, leading a team that had dismantled Tennessee in Knoxville one week earlier. Vandy's much-maligned defense was shredding Georgia's offensive line for sacks, and limiting the Dawgs to -8 yards rushing in the first half.
But just as the long-downtrodden Cubs and Red Sox had done earlier in the week, the luckless Commodores ultimately folded after tantalizing their fans for two quarters. Georgia regained command by scoring 17 points on its first three possessions of the second half, and managed to knock Vandy quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game for a series with a mild concussion.
The Bulldog-tough Georgia defense, statistically one of the nation's best, limited Vanderbilt's offense to 6 points and 218 total yards. The Commodores scored a late touchdown on a Cutler pass to Matthew Tant, but the offense never got on track.
"[The first half] we played really well, and I was proud of my team," said Bobby Johnson, whose team fell to 1-7, 0-4 in the SEC. "They came out really believing they were going to win the game, and they played like it in the first half."
Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) had rolled up 606 yards vs. the Vandy defense one year ago in Athens, but the Commodore defense stormed out of the tunnel determined to prove that was a fluke. The Bulldogs entered the game ranked No. 4 by Associated Press and No. 5 by ESPN/USA Today, and riding high after a 41-14 throttling of Tennessee one week previous.
The first half was an old-fashioned field-position struggle featuring both teams' defense and kicking games. On Georgia's second possession, Jovan Haye sacked All-SEC quarterback David Greene for a 10-yard loss on third down to snuff out a Bulldog drive (AP photo, left). Later Abtin Iranmanesh uncorked an 80-yard punt, and later placed two pooch punts inside the Georgia 5 to keep the Bulldogs bottled up.
Georgia's much-touted defense proved stout also, as Vandy's first six possessions ended in five punts and an interception.
But it was Vandy's defense that provided the first half's only points, with 5:12 left. On a third-down play from the Georgia 10, defensive tackle Ralph McKenzie ripped up the middle to sack Greene for a safety. Vandy suddenly led by the unlikely score of 2-0, and held the two-point lead through halftime.
"[Vanderbilt] did a good job on our offensive line [in the first half]," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "Their defensive line just beat up our offensive line pretty good. We did not have much time to throw. We did not have much time to run. You've got to give them credit."
The first-half stats showed Georgia with -8 yards rushing and only a single first down. The Bulldogs also hurt themselves with six penalties, while Vandy had none.
"In the first half we stuck to our gameplan, and they couldn't get anything going," said Jovan Haye. "We had a lot of momentum going into the second half."
But the Commodores were unable to sustain the momentum after the break. On its first possession after receiving the second-half kickoff, Georgia took a 3-2 lead on a 40-yard Billy Bennett field goal. On its next possession, Georgia marched 58 yards in ten plays and scored on a 6-yard run by tailback Michael Cooper. The third quarter ended with the Commodores still in striking distance, trailing 10-2.
After a tame first three quarters, the fourth was wild and woolly by comparison. Freshman Steven Bright, who had quietly moved up to second on the depth chart in the past two weeks, took over at quarterback after Cutler's concussion and drove Vandy to the Georgia 23; but the Commodores couldn't convert a 4th-and-3 and turned the ball over on downs.
Georgia responded with another long drive, capped by a 23-yard touchdown scamper by Tyson Browning. The Dores regained a ray of hope when Kelechi Ohanaja picked off a Greene pass and returned it to the Vandy 40 with 6:49 left-- but Vandy gave it back two plays later on a Norval McKenzie fumble. Georgia capitalized and added another Bennett field goal.
Cutler returned to the game to drive Vandy 65 yards for a score in the hurry-up offense. The Commodores were the beneficiaries of a controversial fourth-down pass interference call that kept the drive alive, and Cutler found Matthew Tant over the middle for a 25-yard scoring strike. A subsequent 2-point conversion attempt failed. With 1:06 left, Vandy trailed 20-8.
But disaster struck on the ensuing onside kickoff attempt. Georgia linebacker Sean Jones, who had registered a game-changing fumble return in the win over Tennessee a week before, fielded the squib kick the Vandy 43 and kept running to the Vandy 2. Ronnie Powell went up the middle for a score on the next play, and Georgia led by a prohibitive 27-8 with 52 seconds remaining.
Much to the dismay of the red-clad Georgia fans (who easily outnumbered the Commodore fans present), Bobby Johnson refused to let Vandy run out the clock. Once again utilizing the two-minute offense, Cutler used his arm and legs to engineer Vandy to the Georgia 16. On the game's final play, a meaningless Tolga Ertugrul field goal attempt was blocked.
Johnson said the team was discouraged by the loss, but pointed to some good things that happened along the way.
"With what happened last week, and pretty much up to this game, I think we really stepped up," said Johnson. "It seems that we have turned around, but what we need to do is just keep going to work this upcoming week and try to carry this over to the South Carolina game."
"We have to hold our heads up after this game," said Cutler, who rushed for 64 yards and was 10-of-17 passing with one interception. "We control our own destiny, and we will bounce back. We are just a few plays from winning one of these games."
"One of the things we need to do is put a full game together," said free safety Kelechi Ohanaja, who pulled down his first interception. "We have to stay focused and come out next week and play hard."
The loss was Vandy's 21st straight in SEC play, and its 11th straight vs. Division I-A competition. The Commodores (1-7, 0-4 SEC) travel to Columbia, S.C. to play South Carolina next Saturday. Kickoff has been set for 6:00 p.m. CT, 7:00 ET. The game will not be televised.
Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) can clinch the SEC East title if it wins its remaining SEC games vs. Florida, Auburn and Kentucky.
The Commodore defense recorded a season-high five sacks against the Bulldogs. Two of those belonged to Jovan Haye, who now leads the team with six on the season.
Abtin Iranmanesh's 80-yard punt in the first quarter was the second-longest in school history. The ball was spotted on the Vandy 20, and Iranmanesh kicked it at approximately the 6. The line-drive punt soared over the Georgia returner's head, took a Vanderbilt roll, and went into the end zone just a few feet inside the pylon. (The longest punt in school history was an 82-yarder vs. Georgia in 1984 by Ricky Anderson.)
Jay Cutler appeared to be OK after the game despite a mild concussion. "I feel better," he said. "I got knocked around on a couple of plays. But Steven (Bright) did a great job coming in for me. I'm proud of him for doing that. I felt fine after I went back in there."
Starting middle linebacker Otis Washington left the game with what appeared to be a sprained knee, but later returned to action with the knee heavily taped.