The Blue Raiders, just three years removed from the Division 1-AA Ohio Valley Conference, knocked off Vanderbilt 37-28 in an emotional game before 39,885 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“This is one of the toughest losses I’ve ever been involved in,” said Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, whose career mark at VU dropped to 13-32. “This is like the Kentucky game a few years back, where we would have gone to a bowl if we won. This ranks right up there.”
It was MTSU’s first victory over an SEC school in 17 attempts and its first win over Vanderbilt in 13 tries, though the last game was in 1956.
The Blue Raider offense racked up an incredible 608 total yards against a Vanderbilt defense that never had the answer. Offensively, Vanderbilt put up some strong numbers as well (477 total yards), but the Blue Raiders had too much on this night for the black and gold.
“I knew they had firepower on offense,” Widenhofer said. “We had bad penalties at bad times and didn’t tackle well.”
Vanderbilt wide receiver M.J. Garrett made eight catches for 219 yards and a touchdown, three yards short of a school record. Greg Zolman completed 13 of 32 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
“We knew which plays were going to work all week,” Garrett said. “And for the most part, they worked in the game.”
For MTSU, running back Dwone Hicks rushed for 203 yards and four touchdowns.
Vanderbilt made several mental mistakes, committing 11 penalties for 83 yards and dropping eight passes.
“There is no excuse for those mental mistakes,” said wide receiver Dan Stricker.
Vanderbilt’s final opportunity melted away when Greg Zolman was stopped short on fourth-and-two at the Vanderbilt 41-yard line with 4:03 remaining and MTSU leading 30-28. The Blue Raiders then pounded the ball into the Vanderbilt end zone one final time with 21 seconds to play to seal the upset.
Early in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt had a golden opportunity to take the lead. Trailing 30-28, the Commodores had first-and-goal at the Blue Raider 10 following a 48-yard reception by Garrett. Nezih Hasanoglu dropped a sure touchdown on second down, then on fourth, Justin Purkey fumbled the snap on a 23-yard field goal attempt, leaving Vanderbilt with no points.
Middle Tennessee took a 30-28 lead midway through the third quarter when Hicks scored his fourth touchdown of the night on a two-yard plunge that capped a 15-play, 80-yard drive. MTSU converted three third downs on the drive, and the touchdown was set up by a pass interference call in the end zone against the Commodores.
The first half was a track meet, with the teams combining for seven touchdowns, 52 points and 697 yards. The Commodores headed back to the locker room with a 28-24 lead after Zolman connected with Garrett on a 73-yard bomb with 31 seconds remaining in the half.
MTSU jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on a pair of Hicks one-yard touchdowns. But Vanderbilt’s offense caught fire for the remainder of the half, producing four touchdowns on its final four possessions. Rodney Williams capped a 58-yard drive with a three-yard burst, then Lew Thomas busted a 26-yard touchdown run to tie the game seven minutes later.
“I thought when they jumped up 14-0, that gave them confidence,” Widenhofer said. “They kept that confidence the whole game.”
Following an MTSU field goal, Zolman hooked up with Dan Stricker from 48 yards to give Vanderbilt its first lead of the night at 21-17. The touchdown strike capped a four-play, 69-yard Commodore march.
Vanderbilt’s defense could not stop the Blue Raiders, however, as MTSU re-took the lead on a seven-play, 76-yard drive that was aided by two personal fouls on the VU defense.