DURHAM, N.C.-- For Vanderbilt, it was one of those nothing-to-win and everything-to-lose situations. In the 1-5 Commodores, the Duke Blue Devils thought they had found the perfect opponent against whom to snap a 19-game losing streak.
Instead, it was Woody Widenhofer's Commodores who snapped a 3-game losing streak. Vandy made plenty of mistakes, and gave up 537 yards of total offense, but capitalized on 6 turnovers to defeat the downtrodden Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium, 42-28.
The win was a bittersweet one for Vanderbilt, which lost starting running back Lew Thomas in the first half with what appeared to be a season-ending ankle injury. Rodney Williams finished the game for Thomas, and gamely picked up 155 yards on 18 carries in a relief effort.
If you love defensive struggles, this wouldn't have been your game. But Commodore fans who made the trip got to see plenty of offensive fireworks. Vandy's offense rolled up 42 points and 513 total yards, both season highs. Both Lew Thomas and Rodney Williams went over 100 yards rushing-- the first time two Vandy running backs have done that since 1994.
Turnovers proved to be Duke's Achilles heel. Duke turned the ball over 6 times-- 4 times on interceptions thrown by Duke quarterback D. Bryant-- as opposed to only 2 turnovers for Vandy (Rodney Williams fumbles).
As shoddy as the play was on both sides, the Commodores deserve credit for taking care of business. They had plenty of chances to let the game slip away in the fourth quarter, as has happened many times in the past. But ultimately Commodore fans (including a group of 76 students escorted by Chancellor Gordon Gee) could return home in high spirits, having seen Vanderbilt pull off a gridiron win in the heart of ACC country.
Vanderbilt scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 35-14 lead, and the game was seemingly on ice-- but with this Commodore team, you simply can't count the "W" until it's in the icebox. Duke scored on its next possession and cut the lead to 35-20, and after recovering a Williams fumble at the Vandy 32, the Devils marched for the score and a 2-point conversion to pull within 35-28 with 7:54 remaining in the game.
It was at that point that Williams atoned for his earlier bobbles by taking a handoff 56 yards from scrimmage to the Duke 9, a tremendous momentum-shifter. Greg Zolman later scored on a 5-yard keeper to provide Vandy's final margin of victory. Duke quickly marched the ball downfield 87 yards, but safety Justin Giboney intercepted a D. Bryant pass in the end zone to kill a Devil drive that could have cut the lead to 7. Giboney later had another interception, which came on a "Hail, Mary" pass on the final play of the game.
For the second week in a row, Greg Zolman had an uncharacteristically poor game. The senior leader completed only 8-of-18 passes, and was only 3-of-12 in the first half. (However, that may have been because he landed hard on his head after a run early in the game, and was shaken up. He was replaced by Tim Olmstead for a single play.) Vandy mostly kept the ball on the ground in the second half.
Vandy's secondary had a big day, picking off Duke quarterback D. Bryant 4 times. Aaron McWhorter, Lorenzo Parker, and Justin Giboney (2) each collected their first career interceptions.
Duke scored first on a run by fullback Alex Wade. Vanderbilt tied the game at 7-7 when Greg Zolman hit Dan Stricker on a 45-yard play-action pass just into the second quarter.
A couple of big runs by Lew Thomas set up Vandy's second TD, which came on a 2-yard Rodney Williams run that went right over right guard Brian Kovolisky. But Duke answered with a 71-yard drive that made the halftime score 14-14.
In the third quarter, McWhorter's interception return to Duke's 5-yard line set up Williams' second touchdown run, and Vandy led 21-14. On Vandy's next possession Zolman found receiver M. J. Garrett open along the sideline, and Garrett put a nifty move on the Duke corner and scored from 54 yards out.
Vandy's third touchdown of the third quarter was set up by a 40-yard pass to Dan Stricker. Freshman receiver Jason Mathenia scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 14-yard run from scrimmage. (It was great to see Mathenia lower his shoulder and run over a Duke defender for the final two yards.) With Vandy up 35-14, many in the small crowd began filtering out.
But some shoddy play by Vanderbilt's defense and a fumble by Williams allowed the Devils to cut the score to 35-28. Tight end Mike Mart was absolutely WIDE OPEN on Duke's two-point conversion-- that had to have been a blown assignment. But Rodney Williams' subsequent heroics sealed Duke's 20th straight loss.
A few subs on the defensive side got a surprising amount of playing time. Junior linebacker Mike Adam replaced Pat Brunner for much of the second half, and turned in a nice performance. Redshirt freshman defensive end Robert Dinwiddie got into the mix, and played quite a bit in the second half. Jerrol Jackson got his first start of the year at safety.
With four SEC games remaining, a winning season for Vanderbilt (2-5, 0-4 SEC) is still a remote possibility. The Commodores take on Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (aka the "Swamp") next Saturday at 11:30 a.m. It will be a stern challenge for the Commodores, who must face their final four games without their stud running back, Lew Thomas.
But on this windy day in Durham, observant Vandy fans realized that, as low as the Commodore boat has gone, it hasn't gone as low as Duke's.