WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.-- Deep in the heart of tobacco country, against a team oxymoronically nicknamed the "Demon Deacons", the Vanderbilt Commodores finally exorcised a few demons of their own Thursday-- and in doing so struck a blow for SEC pride.
After seeing an 11-point lead morph quickly into a 3-point deficit, Bobby Johnson's Commodores roared back in the fourth quarter to win a thriller over Wake Forest, 24-20. Just when you thought Ol' Vandy was about to fold up its tent, as it has done so many times in the past, the Commodore defense came up with a big stop to seal a non-conference win before 25,384 at Groves Stadium.
"We hung on," was just about all an exuberantly drained Johnson could mutter as the final seconds ticked away. "We hung on!"
Before a national audience on ESPNU, the Commodores (1-0) won their first season opener since 1997, and their first road game since 2001. They withstood an sensational 254-yard rushing performance by the Deacs' Micah Andrews. More than anything else though, they seemed to banish the ghosts of Vanderbilt past to the anxiety closet, and get the 2005 season off to a memorable, rollicking start.
"I can't tell you how good this feels right now, after all we've been through," said senior tight end Dustin Dunning, who caught four passes for 46 yards. "It's been a long time coming. Finally, we're starting to see all of the hard work start to pay dividends."
Vanderbilt never really slowed down the Wake Forest offense, which, led by Andrews' devastating running and Benjamin Mauk's passing, blistered VU for 472 yards. But neither did the Deacons from the Atlantic Coast Conference ever really stop quarterback Jay Cutler, who spread the ball out to eight different receivers and finished with 276 yards passing and 89 rushing yards.
"It was a huge team effort," said Cutler, who deflected personal praise after amassing 365 yards of total offense and moving into second place on the all-time Vanderbilt list. "We were confident all night long."
The victory wasn't secure until, of all things, the replay officials announced a ruling on a desperation pass play. On fourth-and-28 from the Vanderbilt 48, Mauk launched a desperation pass to Chris Davis along the sideline. Vandy's Josh Allen deflected the ball, but Davis appeared to come down with it out of bounds. The officials ruled "no catch", and Vandy would get the ball back with 0:16 to play.
But hold everything... the video operator elected, for the first and only time of the night, to invoke the brand new instant-replay review option.
After about a 90-second delay, the P.A. announcer proclaimed the play would stand... and Vanderbilt fans let out a sigh heard all the way back to Nashville.
"I don't know who in the world voted in instant replay, but it about stopped my heart," joked Johnson later. (The SEC coaches approved the measure earlier this year in spring meetings, and Johnson had spoken in favor of it.)
Vandy had taken a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter, but early in the fourth quarter the game appeared to be unraveling. Cutler threw his only interception of the night; a Ryan Plackemeier punt pinned Vandy at its own 1, and the Commodores couldn't move. Behind two long runs from Andrews, the Deacons completed a quick 41-yard drive to take a 20-17 lead.
The two teams exchanged punts, and Vandy got the ball back on the Wake 49 with 3:02 left. Then the fireworks: freshman Earl Bennett caught a Cutler pass and juked past a defender for a 28-yard gain. Three plays later, Vandy would score on a 5-yard Jeff Jennings run up the middle. Bryant Hahnfeldt's PAT made it 24-20.
Jeff Jennings (21) is swarmed by his teammates after scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to put Vanderbilt up 24-20. (AP Photo/Chris Keane)
Wake still had 1:48 in which to score ("We actually scored too quick" Johnson would say later), and crafty QB Mauk quickly maneuvered Wake into Vandy territory. The 1,000-plus Vandy diehards who had made their way into Groves Stadium could see this one crumbling before their eyes.
But not this time! On second-and-10 from the VU 30, defensive end Herdley Harrison sacked Mauk for an 18-yard loss. Mauk threw a long pass incomplete on third down, setting up the dramatic, official-reviewed play on fourth-and-28.
"I don't know what the official was reviewing," said senior corner Andrew Pace. "It looked like he was out. The official who was in position to make the call made the ruling that it was out, and I trusted his judgment! It turned out he was right, and I'm just glad he was, and that we got the win."
Before leaving the field, the Commodore players ran over to salute the fans who had followed them on the road. They then paused for a moment of silence to remember Kwane Doster, their teammate who had been murdered last December.
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Chants of "Who you with?" poured from the raucous locker room. Commodore fans waited around for more than an hour to congratulate their heroes as they exited the locker room to board buses.
Wake Forest took the opening kickoff, drove 76 yards and scored first on a 34-yard field goal by Sam Swank. The Commodores answered with a 34-yard three-pointer of their own by freshman placekicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, and the first period ended with the score knotted at 3-3.
Cutler directed a 13-play, 78-yard scoring drive, capped by a 20-yard strike to Marlon White early in the second quarter. White leapt high to yank the ball away from a defender and landed on his bottom for Vandy's first touchdown of the season, giving Vandy its first lead at 10-3.
The Commodore defense gave up yardage in big chunks, mostly on Micah Andrews runs, but was able to keep Wake Forest off the scoreboard for most of the rest of the half. That is, until Mauk hit a streaking Kevin Harris for a 45-yard gain with time running out in the first half. The play, which went to the Vandy 5, set up Swank for a 22-yard field goal as the half expired that cut Vandy's lead to 10-6.
The Commodores would stretch their lead to 11 points with five minutes left in the third quarter, after Cutler directed a 96-yard scoring drive. Dunning's 30-yard pass reception up the middle was the big play, setting up a 10-yard Jennings run. But once again, behind the magnificent running of Andrews, Wake would answer with a clock-eating, 65-yard touchdown drive to make it 17-13 as the third quarter ended.
"I think Vanderbilt kept us off balance with their quarterback running the football," said Wake coach Jim Grobe. "I think as much as anything else they executed two or three really good plays."
The Commodores (1-0) face another road date Sept 10 vs. Arkansas, before returning home for a Sept. 17 home date against Ole Miss, the first of five consecutive home games. Wake Forest's (0-1) next foe is Nebraska in Lincoln Sept. 10.
Senior Mac Pyle started at right guard and played his first game since his departure from the team in midseason 2004. Backup Nigel Seaman missed the game with a concussion.
Thursday's game was the first Division I-A football game ever televised by the six-month-old, college-oriented sports network, ESPNU.
Walk-on kicker Bill Robertson, a junior, handled kickoff duties for the Commodores, while Kyle Keown, a sophomore, did the punting. True freshman Bryant Hahnfeldt was perfect on his one field goal and three PAT attempts.
Earl Bennett got the nod as punt returner, but never touched the ball on returns.
Vandy has now won four straight meetings with Wake Forest and leads 5-3 in the all-time series. The two teams are not scheduled to meet again in the near future.