Vanderbilt hit pay dirt again on its second drive. Nickson found wide receiver Earl Bennett for a 77-yard scoring pass to give the Commodores a 14-0 lead with 3:12 remaining in the first quarter. That drive spanned 97 yards in just 5 plays.
After Duke turned the ball over on downs following an unsuccessful fourth down conversion attempt, Vanderbilt scored its third straight touchdown of the game. Chris Nickson ran for a 5-yard touchdown with 12:33 remaining in the half to give the Commodores a 21-0 lead.
Duke finally forced Vanderbilt to punt on its fourth possession. Vandy answered with a Darlron Spead interception of Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis . Lewis passed for just 106 yards on the day and was intercepted twice.
A 41-yard pass play to George Smith, the only play of Vanderbilt's fifth possession, gave Vanderbilt a 28-0 lead with 6:22 remaining in the half.
The Blue Devils finally got on the board with just 1:25 remaining in the half. Justin Boyle ran it in from 2 yards to cut the Vanderbilt lead to 28-7. On its ensuing possession, Vandy drove to the Duke 20-yard-line and as time expired Bryant Hahnfeldt missed a field goal that was partially blocked.
A 3-yard touchdown run by Cassen Jackson-Garrison extended the Vandy lead to 35-7 with 5 minutes remaining in the third quarter. Jackson-Garrison rushed for 45 yards in 10 carries during the game.
In the fourth quarter the Vanderbilt staff began substituting liberally. Vanderbilt backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams led the Commodores on a 14-play, 58 yard drive that culminated in a Bryant Hahnfeldt 44-yard field goal to give the Commodores a seemingly insurmountable 38-7 lead with 12:07 remaining in the game.
Duke would not quit. The Blue Devils responded with a 3 play, 62-yard drive that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown run by Boyle to pull the Devils to within 24. Boyle rushed for 114 yards on 14 carries during the game.
On the first play of Vanderbilt ensuing possession Duke forced a fumble on Adams, recovering at the Vanderbilt 32. Four plays later Boyle scored his third touchdown of the day. A successful 2-point conversion attempt by Duke made the scored Vanderbilt 38 Duke 22 with 7:27 remaining in the game.
Things would get harrier for Vandy. After successfully converting an on-side-kick, Duke got the ball at the Vanderbilt 33. Boyle rushed for his fourth touchdown of the day on the Devil's first play of the possession cutting Vandy's lead to just 38-28. The 2-point conversion attempt was stuffed by the Commodore defense.
After Vandy successfully recovered a second Duke on-side-kick at the Devil 47, the Commodore staff brought the their starters back into the game to preserve the lead. Chris Nickson displayed incredible running ability during Vandy's next drive. Nickson rushed for all 47 Commodore yards during Vanderbilt's 5 play scoring drive, which culminated in a Nickson 1-yard scoring plunge to put Vanderbilt up 45-28.
A D.J. Moore interception ended any chance of another Duke score. Vanderbilt's Nickson finished the game with an impressive 250 yards passing and 150 yards rushing. It was the most rushing yards in a game by a Commodore since Rodney Williams rushed for 155, also against Duke, in 2001. It was the most passing yards by a Vanderbilt quarterback since Jay Cutler passed for 315 last season against Tennessee. It was the most rushing yards by a Commodore quarterback since Van Heflin ran for 167 against Air Force on Nov. 17, 1979. The last time a Vanderbilt quarterback gained over 400 yards in total offense was during the 2005 season when Jay Cutler passed for 395 yards and rushed for 38 yards against Kentucky for a total of 433 yards.
After the game a relieved Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson commented on the Duke comeback attempt, "We had some guys that were struggling, that were bruised up and banged up. They did a good job of getting the quick score and after that, they had the onside kick. That was the key. You give up 14 points and you're going to get scared a little bit," said Johnson.
Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett heads for the end zone. Bennett caught 9 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown during the game. (VM/Stan Jones)