Vanderbilt's hopes to return to the win column took a hit to the broadside Saturday alongside Chesapeake Bay. Navy, one of the nation's most surprising teams, stayed undefeated with a hard-fought 29-26 victory at tradition-rich Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, while the Commodores (0-3) remained winless.
After falling behind 19-14 in the third quarter, the Mids scored consecutive second-half touchdowns to take a 29-19 lead. Vanderbilt cut the lead to 29-26 with 2:30 left to play when Jay Cutler hit a leaping Marlon White in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown pass. But Navy recovered the ensuing onside kick, and the Midshipmen were able to run out the clock to seal the win.
The Commodores had hoped to bounce back from last week's heartbreaking overtime loss to Ole Miss with an out-of-conference win over the Midshipmen. Instead, playing on the road without starters Justin Geisinger, Erik Davis and Kelechi Ohanaja, Vandy dropped its fourth game in a row and its 15th straight on the road.
Vanderbilt blocked a punt for a safety in the second half and limited Navy's vaunted triple-option rushing attack to 71 yards in the first half. But the Midshipmen, spurred on by a partisan crowd of 32,809, adjusted and reeled off two long second-half touchdown drives. Vanderbilt's offense, meanwhile, ran up 329 total yards but failed to produce a touchdown in the second half until very late.
"They played more physical than we did in the second half," said running back Norval McKenzie, who led the team with 54 yards rushing. "We had some lapses in the second half, and turnovers really killed us."
Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco threw for a career-high 176 yards and passed for 84.
The game could hardly have gotten off to a worse start for the Commodores. On the first play from scrimmage Cutler coughed up the football at the Vandy 27. But the Commodore defense held the Midshipmen to an errant field goal attempt, and both teams were scoreless in the first quarter.
Cutler broke the ice just inside the second quarter when he found Brandon Smith in the corner of the end zone for a 7-yard score. The TD culminated a 6-play, 68-yard drive, and Patrick Johnson's PAT put Vandy ahead 7-0.
But Navy would strike back quickly. Aaron Polanco hit slotback Marco Nelson on a 45-yard passing play to tie the game at 7, and a subsequent Norval McKenzie fumble set the Mids up for a short 41-yard drive. Slotback Trey Hines culminated the drive on a 2-yard pitch play, and suddenly Vandy was staring at a 14-7 deficit.
But the Commodores, keyed by a 38-yard catch-and-run by Marlon White, would respond with a Navy-esque 79-yard, 13-play, time-consuming drive just before halftime to tie the game. With the game clock ticking down, Jay Cutler squirmed and stuck the ball over the goal line on a fourth-and-inches play, and the teams went to the break tied 14-14.
Early in the second half Norval McKenzie blocked Eric Shuey's punt through the back of the end zone for a safety. Kwane Doster returned the ensuing kickoff to the Navy 48, and the Dores moved into position for a 44-yard Patrick Johnson field goal that gave Vandy a 19-14 lead.
The Midshipmen took the lead back on a 74-yard drive, culminated by a 5-yard pitch play to Frank Divis and a 2-point conversion. Early in the fourth quarter Navy scored again on a 68-yard drive, and the Mids' lead reached 29-19.
Vanderbilt cut the lead to 29-26 with 2:30 left, but could not stop Navy on its final possession. After Navy converted on a fourth-and-inches inside the final minute, the frustration showed for Vanderbilt, as Robert Dinwiddie was ejected from the game for making physical contact with an official.
Vanderbilt returns home next Saturday to host SEC foe Mississippi State in an untelevised 6 p.m. CT game at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Bulldogs lost 51-0 to No. 13 LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday. Navy (4-0) meets Air Force Thursday at Colorado Springs in a nationally-televised game.
Wide receiver Erik Davis (dislocated toe), safety Kelechi Ohanaja (quadriceps) and offensive tackle Justin Geisinger (sprained knee) all sat out the game with injuries. For Geisinger, it broke a string of 26 consecutive starts.
Robert Dinwiddie moved from defensive tackle to end for the game, and Ralph McKenzie started in Dinwiddie's place at right tackle. Sophomore Marcus Buggs got his first career start at strong safety, and Andrew Pace started in Ohanaja's place at free safety.
Sophomore quarterback Steven Bright spelled Cutler for one series in the second quarter and made several appearances in the second half in relief of Cutler. True freshman running back Jeff Jennings (6-1, 225, Dandridge, Tenn.) saw his first significant action and gained 27 yards on 7 carries.
Bobby Johnson's record vs. Navy's Paul Johnson fell to 2-6, including 0-2 at Vanderbilt. The two coaches were familiar foes when Bobby coached at Furman and Paul coached Georgia Southern. Navy took a 3-2-2 lead in the all-time series between the two schools, which dates back to 1907.
Navy slotback Eric Roberts became only the 35th player in Division I-A history to go over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a career.