Bryant Hahnfeldt lined up for a 36-yard field goal attempt with three seconds left and Vanderbilt trailing 17-15. Three numbing seconds later, the Commodores were saddled with their first loss of the season when Hahnfeldt's attempt was blocked immediately by MTSU's outside rusher Jeremiah Weaver.
The play set off a wild celebration on the MTSU sideline as the Blue Raiders pulled off the upset and recorded their third win at Vanderbilt Stadium in three tries since 2001 and first win of the 2005 season.
"This game was a great example of us having to play very well to have a chance to win," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "It was a great lesson for our team. You have to play every play and be ready to compete and we didn't play every play."
Quarterback Jay Cutler nearly put together his third game-winning drive of the season, as he took over at his own one-yard line with 2:47 to play. Cutler drove the Commodores 81 yards to get in position for the winning field goal, completing 7 of 10 passes in crunch time. He finished with 245 yards on 26 of 45 passing, with one touchdown and one interception. "We were inconsistent," Cutler said. "We were killing ourselves. One breakdown after another out there."
Vanderbilt outgained MTSU 347-209 and owned an 11-minute edge in time of possession. But the Commodores trailed almost the entire evening, and when they did take the lead 15-14 in the fourth quarter on a brilliant Erik Davis touchdown, MTSU was able to take the lead back two possessions later on a 29-yard field goal by Colby Smith.
"We beat an undefeated team in the SEC," MTSU coach Andy McCollum. "They've come a long way. To beat a team of this caliber is big."
Davis finished the night with seven catches for 92 yards, while Earl Bennett turned in another strong performance with seven catches for 63 yards.
Middle Tennessee played a near flawless game with no turnovers, solid punting and fundamental defense that never allowed Vanderbilt to get in a rhythm. When Vanderbilt did almost break through, like it did at the end of the second quarter, MTSU rose up and help Vanderbilt to a short field goal after the Dores had a first-and-goal at the five-yard line.
At halftime, Vanderbilt trailed 14-6. MTSU's first touchdown was set up by a Cutler interception deep in Vanderbilt territory (his first in three games), and the second was aided by a 44-yard bomb from quarterback Clint Marks to receiver Bobby Williams. Other than that, the Dores' defense was solid, and forced four straight punts to open up the second half.
But it was the vaunted Commodores offense that could simply not get going against MTSU. The Dores didn't crack the end zone until the fourth quarter, settling for three Hahnfeldt field goals in the first, second and third quarters. The 347 yards was a season low for a unit that entered the weekend ranked second in the SEC.
"They played us tough in the secondary, and that made it tough to run," Johnson said. "We just weren't consistent enough."
Jeff Jennings was held to 18 yards on 10 carries and Cassen Jackson-Garrison had 46 yards on nine carries, with 20 coming on one run. The Dores even experimented with Chris Nickson coming in at quarterback on about five plays and lining Cutler up at wide receiver, but those plays didn't have much success save for one 11-yard gain by Nickson.
"What they presented defensively did not give us a lot of problems," Cutler said. "I had that one pick. The safety made a great play on it. I should have seen him."
In the end, MTSU made the game-winning play, and Vanderbilt is left to pick up the pieces after its undefeated season disappeared in an instant.
"We're either going to be done for the season or we're going to play better football," Cutler said. "We have a lot of talent. We still have a good football team. We are 4-1. It is still a good record. If someone came in here to tell me this is a bad team after one loss, I would argue with him all day."
Bill Trocchi is interactive editor for Athlon Sports.