FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.-- When SEC football fans open their eyes Sunday morning, they may be in for a big surprise upon examining the Eastern Division standings. On Saturday before a hostile crowd of 68,215 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Vanderbilt scored 15 points in the fourth quarter for a heart-pounding, 28-24 win over Arkansas.
In doing so, the surprising Commodores (2-0, 1-0) grabbed a share of the divisional lead (with Georgia, victor over South Carolina), and won back-to-back road games for the first time since 1999. For the second week in a row, a lightly regarded Vanderbilt squad roared from behind to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and made key defensive stops to seal a victory.
For the second week in a row, the Commodore bench erupted in joy as quarterback Jay Cutler took a knee with the final seconds ticking away. The Commodores, notable for years for their close-but-no-cigar fourth-quarter failures, apparenly have finally learned the secret to closing out a game.
"I don't think anybody expected this," said Marlon White, who caught the two fateful fourth-quarter TD passes and another pass for a two-point conversion. "I think Vanderbilt made a statement tonight. Nobody thought we were going to come to Arkansas and beat Arkansas."
Suddenly, Bobby Johnson's Commodores are winning the kind of games which they were formerly notorious for losing.
"We've been close several times," said Johnson, at a loss to explain what was different about this year's club from teams past. "We were close a bunch of times last year. This time we had senior leadership and we were making plays.
"We finally settled down and Cutler made some unbelievable throws. He was really confident. He is the guy I want on my team in those situations."
Trailing 24-13 entering the fourth quarter, the marvelously poised Cutler drove Vanderbilt 70 yards, finding White for a 20-yard touchdown aerial. With 12:44 left in the game, trailing by 5, the Commodores successfully executed a two-point conversion to cut the score to 24-21.
The plucky Commodores appeared to squander a chance to send the game into overtime when Bryant Hahnfeldt missed a 43-yard field goal attempt with 2:46 remaining. But lo and behold, Johnson used two timeouts and the defense forced a Razorback punt, giving the Vandy offense the ball back on its own 24 with 2:22 left.
Thus began the game-winning drive, one which will no doubt go down in Commodore lore. Throwing on every down, with Arkansas blitzing on almost every down-- with the enormous, hostile crowd roaring and the seconds ticking away-- Cutler completed 6-of-12 passes to bring Vandy into the red zone. A pass interference penalty gave Vandy a first-and-goal from the 6, on which Cutler immediately threw a bullet slant pass to White in the end zone. The touchdown, with Hahnfeldt's extra point, put Vandy up 28-24 with 0:26 left.
Still, the game wasn't over until Moses Osemwegie picked off Robert Johnson's pass at the Razorback 40 and rolled to his knees. It was Vandy's only interception of the night-- and it could hardly have come at a better time. Suddenly, the stunned crowd went silent-- except for the 400 or so exhilarated Vanderbilt fans who'd made the long trip.
When the dust settled, Vandy had won its first SEC opener since 1990 and its first SEC road opener since 1984. (It was also Vandy's first win over Arkansas since 1950, though it was only the schools' sixth meeting in the sparsely played series.)
Arkansas owned the first quarter, scoring easily on its first possession on a 39-yard De'Arrius Howard run from scrimmage. The Hogs came close to tacking on seven more points, but the Commodore defense came up with a tremendous goal line stand, stopping three straight Arkansas runs from the Vandy 1-yard-line for no gain.
"If we had gotten that far down, I'm not sure we could have recovered," Johnson said later.
The Razorbacks did add a field goal early in the second quarter, before Cutler finally brought the Commodore offense to life.
Vandy put together a touchdown drive aided by two pass interference penalties on third-down plays. The Commodores caught two more breaks as they neared the Arkansas goal line: Jeff Jennings carried to the 1-foot-line, but fumbled stretching the ball over the goal line; Cutler broke the plane on a sneak on the next play, but lost the ball. Arkansas fans thought both plays should have been ruled fumbles, but Vanderbilt was awarded a touchdown.
As it turned out, Vandy had one more punch in its arsenal before the half. Cassen Jackson-Garrison broke off a 73-yard run from scrimmage that took the ball to the Arkansas 3-- but the Vandy offense sputtered on three straight plays in the red zone and settled for a game-tying field goal. Though Arkansas had outgained Vandy by over 100 yards in the first half, the two teams were knotted 10-10.
Vanderbilt penetrated deep into Razorback territory on its first possession of the third quarter, when Cutler found Davis in stride for a 39-yard pass play. The catch-and-run set the Dores up at the UA 17, but they had to settle for a 28-yard Hahnfeldt field goal.
Vandy's 13-10 lead was short-lived; spurred on by the crowd, Arkansas would answer with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns. First the Razorbacks went 70 yards, with Johnson hitting Marcus Monk with a 7-yard touchdown pass; and Johnson followed that up with a 5-play 47-yard drive, with Peyton Hillis pulling down a 16-yard scoring pass.
The 24-13 lead would carry over into the fourth quarter... but it wouldn't last.
"This was a disappointing loss," said Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt. "We let some opportunities slip away. We knew we would be playing against a top-notch quarterback.
"They made some great plays. We just let one slip."
Cutler finished 23-of-45 passing with two touchdowns passing. They Commodores limited Arkansas, which had rushed for 483 yards the previous week, to 194 rushing yards.
The Commodores return on Nashville for their first home game of the season next Saturday vs. Ole Miss (11:30 am CT, Jefferson-Pilot TV), which was idle Saturday. The Razorbacks (1-1, 0-1) travel to Los Angeles next Saturday to face top-ranked USC.
Starting right guard Mac Pyle suffered a sprained left knee in the second quarter and did not return; Elliot Hood replaced him for the rest of the game. H-back Steven Bright left the game with what appeared to be a sprained knee in the fourth quarter; he was later seen walking unassisted, but with a visible limp.
Erik Davis played and seemed to suffer no ill effects from a hamstring injury the previous week. Ray Brown (foot) and Nigel Seaman (concussion) both sat out the game.
Much more to come from the victorious Commodore locker room!