NASHVILLE-- The coaches were yelling at Erik Davis. And he loved it.
Davis was the safety man in Vanderbilt’s “Victory” formation, and he was doing a little celebrating. Sure, there was one second on the clock, but after this three-hour, 45-minute marathon, Davis had reason to dance. The scoreboard read Vanderbilt 31, Ole Miss 23, and the sun was shining as bright as it had all day at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I love that formation,” Davis said. “I’m back there celebrating. It’s fun.”
One more snap, and it was official. The Vanderbilt Commodores are 3-0, 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference and staring at games with Richmond and MTSU at Vanderbilt Stadium on the next two Satudays.
Life is good?
“This team realizes it hasn’t really done much yet and we have a lot of games left,” said quarterback Jay Cutler, toeing the company line. “This team is a little hesitant to say we’re really good. We’re confident when we take the field, but we are still going to work hard and prepare every week.”
This week, they better prepare for a few slaps on the back. The Commodores are sitting atop the SEC East after holding on against a resolute Ole Miss squad that would not go away after Vanderbilt built a 24-3 third-quarter lead.
The Commodores put up 523 yards of offense, with Cutler throwing for 314 and Jeff Jennings running for 103 yards and three touchdowns. But it came down to one final defensive stand in the fourth quarter for the Dores to snap the Ole Miss five-game win streak in the series.
Jennings punched in a one-yard touchdown with 1:26 to play to give VU a 31-23 lead, but the Rebels drove back. Quarterback Michael Spurlock went down with a gruesome hand injury half-way through the drive, but Robert Lane came in and moved Ole Miss to the Vanderbilt 16-yard line with 12 seconds left. Moses Osemwegie sacked Lane, stripped the ball and recovered the fumble, ending the game and securing yet another Vanderbilt nail-biter.
“We have to battle every time we go out on the field to have a chance to win,” said coach Bobby Johnson, who has posted a Vanderbilt career-high in wins after three games. “That was the case today. We had to battle. We held on just like we did the first two weeks.”
Vanderbilt’s 24-3 lead in the third quarter went away on three unlikely touchdowns by Ole Miss. First, the Rebels threw a 24-yard touchdown on fourth-and-six to cut the lead to 24-10. Then, Mico McSwain scored on a 53-yard run when he was hemmed in on the Vanderbilt sideline, reversed field and outsprinted everyone in a gold uniform to the end zone. Lastly, Mike Espy returned a punt 51 yards for a score. Fortunately for the Dores, Ralph Mckenzie blocked the extra point, keeping VU in front 24-23.
“That probably won us the game,” Johnson said.
The Dores’ offense responded, marching to the Ole Miss two-yard line thanks to a 40-yard pass to Erik Davis (8 catches, 107 yards) and a 38-yard pass to Dustin Dunning. Three plays later, however, Bryant Hahnfeldt had a 31-yard field goal blocked.
After an exchange of punts, Vanderbilt drove for a final touchdown, covering 64 yards, including a key 11-yard catch by freshman Earl Bennett on third-and-nine.
“Whenever we go out on the field and we have a little time, we’re going to be able to score,” Cutler said. “Our receivers are playing great right now. If we have to put six points up on the board, we can do it.”
It was a shaky start for the Commodores, as Vanderbilt surrendered a field goal on the game’s opening possession, then quickly went three-and-out on its first possession. Trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, Vanderbilt then took control of the game.
Hahnfeldt knotted the game 3-3 after a 50-yard drive that included conversions on third-and-eight and third-and-12.
Vanderbilt took the lead one possession later when Jennings barreled into the end zone from three yards out. That possession included a conversion on third-and-11 as Cutler found Davis for a 14-yard gain. The drive covered 63 yards.
Vanderbilt extended the lead to 17-3 when Jennings scored his second touchdown from four yards out as the Commodores marched 80 yards with ease, not even facing a third down on the possession.
The Dores had a chance to extend it to 24-3 in the second quarter, but a Cassen Jackson-Garrison fumble at the Ole Miss 20 killed the drive.
Vanderbilt did extend its lead to 24-3 on the opening drive of the third quarter when Jackson-Garrison scored his first career touchdown from seven yards out. The Dores marched 73 yards on this drive and the game appeared firmly in Vanderbilt’s control.
Control slipped away, of course, but the bottom line is the Commodores are on top of the world, and likely to stay there for at least a few more weeks.
“One of the good things about Vanderbilt is we are not overconfident because we’ve never been there before,” said tight end Dustin Dunning. “We’ve had some hard losses.”
And now they are having some hard wins. Three of them. And they aren’t getting old.