Vanderbilt rode a big-play offense, a blitzing defense, and a sensational performance by quarterback Jay Cutler to a 49-18 win over Furman in the Commodores' home opener Saturday. It was an emotional win for head coach Bobby Johnson, who had coached the Paladins for the previous eight seasons.
The Commodores scored early and often against Division I-A Furman, and rolled up a convincing 35-6 lead before allowing Furman two second-half touchdowns. The Vandy offense, which had looked anemic against Georgia Tech a week ago, exploded for 557 yards of total offense, including 354 on the ground.
Cutler, a redshirt freshman playing in only his second college game, connected with senior receiver Dan Stricker on two long first-quarter touchdown strikes to put the Commodores up 14-0. He then proceeded to score Vanderbilt's next three touchdowns on quarterback keepers, including a 61-yard run from scrimmage that electrified the crowd of 28,568.
Johnson said the big win, coming on the heels of a disappointing opening loss to Georgia Tech, was born in the players' resilient attitude in practice the past week.
"We had two tough days of practice Tuesday and Wednesday," said Johnson. "It was 95 and 96 degrees on Tuesday and Wednesday. Our guys went out there and fought through it. I told them after the game I appreciated their effort this week.
"A lot of people thought this game was for me. But it was for them. It was an important game for our players."
The Paladins brought a large group of purple-wearing fans, including over 700 freshmen who were bused in at the school's expense. But it was Commodore fans who enjoyed the evening the most, as Vanderbilt picked up its first home win since the Richmond game of Sept. 22, 2001. Even Chancellor Gordon Gee got into the act, giving the Vanderbilt marching band an assist on the bass drum at one point.
The Commodores scored on their first possession, which came after Chuck Losey recovered a fumble on the Furman 43. Cutler threw a perfect strike to Stricker, who hauled in the ball in the back of the end zone. Then on Vanderbilt's second possession Stricker again beat the Furman secondary on a post pattern, and Cutler found him for a 59-yard bomb.
"That's my favorite part about playing receiver-- when you beat a man deep," said Stricker, who had 132 receiving yards on four catches. "Jay put it on the money. He really played well. That's why we practice as hard as we do, to make sure those connections are crisp in the game."
Furman answered with a field goal. After Jonathan Shaub caused Furman's Bear Rinehart to fumble on a punt return, Vanderbilt marched the ball 40 yards for another score. Cutler scored on a quarterback sneak to put the Commodores up 21-3.
The Commodores got the ball back with 2:01 to go in the first half, and Cutler led Vandy on a well-executed two-minute drill that resulted in a touchdown with 11 seconds left. Cutler got the score on an 11-yard scamper, and Vandy took a 28-3 lead to the locker room at halftime.
Furman turned a fumble by Kwane Doster into a field goal to open the second half, but the defense prevented a touchdown after Furman had penetrated to the Vandy 5. The Commodores answered quickly when Cutler went to his left and broke into the clear for a 61-yard run, the last yards coming as he made an athletic leap over a would-be tackler.
The Paladins scored two touchdowns to cut Vandy's lead to 35-18 with 12 minutes left in the game. The clincher came when running back Norval McKenzie went 57 yards from scrimmage on an option play. Vanderbilt's final TD came when fullback Bara Cola scored on a 3-yard dive with four minutes left.
The Commodores cleared the bench as the clock ticked down, and walk-on backs Jason Bourque and Juan Rojas got carries in the waning minutes. Bobby Johnson gave a warm, emotional embrace after the game to Bobby Lamb, his former assistant who is now the Paladins' head coach.
Cutler finished the game 11-of-14 passing for 215 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception. Cutler was also the game's leading rusher, picking up 107 yards on six carries. Benji Walker played three series in a backup role, going 1-for-2 passing.
Billy Napier, the Paladins' athletic quarterback, completed 21 of 31 passes against the Commodore defense, but was nonetheless hit hard numerous times by a Commodore defense that played things considerably more aggressively than in the opener. The Commodores sacked Napier four times and recorded eight tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer unofficially led the team with 11 total tackles.
Norval McKenzie picked up 99 yards on 11 carries, and true freshman Kwane Doster added an impressive 75 yards on 12 carries.
For the second week in a row, the Commodores lost a key player to a serious injury. Ronald Hatcher, who had started the game at running back and returned punts, suffered a fractured leg and is likely lost for the season. True freshman Grant Brigham took his place as primary punt returner.
The Commodores (1-1) next travel to Auburn (1-1) which defeated Western Carolina Saturday. The 11:30 a.m. contest is scheduled for regional television on the Jefferson-Pilot network.