OXFORD, Miss.-- First the good news-- the Vanderbilt football team's play improved by a quantum leap from its first game of 2004 to its second game.
The bad news? The results were still the same. Placekicker Jonathan Nichols connected on a 35-yard field goal in overtime to give Ole Miss a 26-23 win Saturday before 55,824 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Vanderbilt fell to 0-2, while the Rebels (1-2) came back from a 23-10 deficit and escaped with their first win.
It was the same old story for the Commodores, a team which had lost to the Rebels by close margins the previous four years. For the first three quarters Vanderbilt looked like the superior team in roaring to a 23-13 lead after 45 minutes. The Dore offense finally got its rushing game uncorked, and the defense played well enough to keep a struggling Ole Miss offense at bay.
But, as has been the case so often, the fourth quarter proved the Commodores' undoing. A Nichols field goal tied the game at 23-23 with 2:23 to play, and Ole Miss forced Vandy to punt from deep in its own territory. Nichols, who had beaten Vanderbilt the year before with a 54-yard field goal, had a chance to win the game in regulation with a 50-yarder; but the Dores caught a momentary break when his attempt went wide right.
Ole Miss won the coin toss in overtime and deferred. In overtime, Vanderbilt went for the jugular and threw downfield four times, but threw four incomplete passes and failed to make a first down. Three Ole Miss running plays put the ball on the Vandy 17, setting up Nichols' 35-yard game-winner.
"We were trying to make our best player make the best play," Bobby Johnson said of his decision to have Jay Cutler throw downfield on all four plays in overtime. "We were trying to score a touchdown, but they scored a field goal to win.
"I didn't want it to come down to the wire. I never thought we had it in the can. When we were ahead by 10, I didn't want to sit on only a 10-point lead and think that was going to do it. We were trying to win the ball game."
Statistically, there were plenty of positives. Badly outrushed by South Carolina in the opener, Vanderbilt outrushed the Rebels by 183-152 led by Norval McKenzie's 99 yards. The defense forced a couple of big turnovers, and Patrick Johnson kicked a pair of field goals.
But in the fourth quarter, nothing seemed to go Vandy's way. Untimely penalties, Ole Miss sacks of Cutler, a long interception and a partisan Ole Miss crowd all played a part in dealing the Commodores their second loss in as many games.
"It was the same old same old," said Cutler. "We have got to find a way to win in the fourth quarter."
Vanderbilt's offense set a positive tone for the day by moving 9 plays for 61 yards on its opening possession, before settling for a 37-yard Patrick Johnson field goal. The 3-pointer was Johnson's (as well as Vanderbilt's) first of the season.
Ole Miss took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, when Vashon Pearson burst through a hole on the right side and raced 54 yards for a touchdown. But the Commodores would strike twice again before halftime and take a 16-10 lead.
First Cutler set up a touchdown with a 27-yard toss to Brandon Smith that put the Dores at first-and-goal from the Ole Miss 8. Cutler bulled his way for the tying TD himself on a 6-yard, third-down scramble up the middle.
Next a Dominique Morris punt return set Vandy up for a 51-yard drive. Cutler went 23 yards on a sprint-out; Norval McKenzie got 13 more on a run up the gut; and Cutler found Erik Davis across the middle for a 15-yard score. (The Commodores failed to convert the extra point on a botched attempt to run out of the swinging gate formation.)
The Vandy defense held Ole Miss twice more in the first half, and the 16-10 lead held up until the midpoint.
"We came out with our heads up, flying to the ball, and we were excited," said Morris. "We had lots of emotion."
In the third quarter, Lorenzo Parker's fumble recovery at the Ole Miss 27 would set up another Commodore touchdown. Five straight running plays put Vandy in the end zone, with fullback Matthew Tant putting Vandy up 23-10 on a 3-yard rumble. It was to be Vandy's final scoring play.
Ole Miss answered with a 23-yard Nichols field goal, and the third quarter closed with the Rebels trailing 23-13. The two teams exchanged punts, and Vandy took the ball on its own 18. Cutler went long on the first play from scrimmage, but Trumaine McBride picked off the pass and returned it to the Vandy 39-- and a questionable late hit call on the tackle set the Rebs up at the Vandy 24.
Four plays later, the homestanding Rebels would cut it to 23-20 when Lorenzo Townsend churned in from the 3.
Vanderbilt took the ball back its own 35, and drove to the Ole Miss 27 before turning the ball over on downs. On a critical fourth-and-4 play, Cutler scrambled out of the pocket and was only able to pick up 3 yards.
With Ethan Flatt at the controls, Ole Miss then calmly drove 56 yards on 10 plays and tied the game at 23 with 2:23 left on Nichols' third field goal of the game. Neither team could score again in regulation, although Nichols had a chance to win it with a field goal attempt with 0:06 left. That kick went wide right, but he would seal the Dores' fate minutes later with the 35-yarder in OT.
"After a game like today, I was just fortunate to hit it," said Nichols. "The most important kick is the next one. If I had been concerned with the kicks I missed today, I might have missed the last one."
The Commodores (0-2) travel to Annapolis, Md. next week to meet a Navy team that beat them in 37-27 in Nashville in 2003. Ole Miss (1-2) faces Wyoming next week in Laramie, Wyo.
Mississippi's Ethan Flatt, a Nashville native, started the game and ended up playing most of the game. He finished with an impressive 21-of-32 passing for 187 yards with no interceptions. Micheal Spurlock, who had started the Rebels' first two games, was only used for one series in the second quarter and failed to move the team.
Cornerback Dominique Morris replaced Erik Davis this week on punt returns. Morris dropped his first attempt early in the game, but redeemed himself later with a dazzling 21-yard return.
True freshmen Lamar Divens and Theo Horrocks both saw their first collegiate action at defensive end.
Injuries: Erik Davis injured a foot making a reception early in the first quarter; he was taken to a local hospital for X-rays. Starting left tackle Justin Geisinger injured a knee in the first half and sat out the entire second half. Ryan King replaced Geisinger at tackle.
Vanderbilt is now 2-3 all-time in overtime games.