OXFORD, Miss.-- A courageous group of Vanderbilt Commodores fought back from a 21-point deficit to tie Ole Miss at 38-38 with 6:51 to play. But the Commodores were unable to stop Eli Manning and the Rebels on a decisive 80-yard drive, and Vanderbilt fell short at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday, 45-38.
The Rebels drove the ball 80 yards on nine plays to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 23-yard Ronald McClendon run with 3:12 left in the game. Quarterback Jay Cutler led the Commodores inside the Mississippi 29 with 20 seconds left, but was hit in the backfield on a first-down play by the Rebs' Tahrek Johnson and lost the football. E. J. Spence recovered, and the Rebels' victory was secured.
"Our guys didn't give up, that's for sure," said Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson. "We had periods in the game when we played probably as good as we can play. "We've just got to push it up another notch and say, hey, let's get the win.
"We talked about it as a team, and we're just not satisfied with keeping it close," continued Johnson. "I'm proud of our guys, but we've got to learn how to win."
The Commodores' cause appeared lost when Ole Miss took a 38-17 lead just before the end of the third quarter. Eli Manning, the Rebel's junior quarterback phenom, torched the Commodore defense for a career-high 386 yards, 240 of which came in the third quarter alone. But Vanderbilt refused to quit, and scored on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to tie the game.
Freshman kickoff returner Kwane Doster ignited the Commodore rally with a 95-yard kickoff return, which took the ball to the Ole Miss 5. Two plays later Cutler completed a 7-yard fade pass to Dan Stricker in the end zone, making the score 38-24.
After holding Ole Miss to a three-and-out, Cutler led Vandy on a 56-yard scoring drive which culminated in a one-yard quarterback sneak. The big play in the drive was a 31-yard pass play from Cutler to M. J. Garrett.
The Vandy defense held Ole Miss to three plays once more, and a poor punt by Ole Miss put the Commodores in business at the Rebel 41. Kwane Doster appeared to score on a 28-yard run from scrimmage, but officials said he stepped out of bounds at the Ole Miss 3. Fullback Matt Tant carried up the middle for the tying score.
"[In the second half] both teams started making big plays, and both teams started playing a little loose," said Johnson. "Both teams probably got a little bit cautious on defense."
Ole Miss got the ball back with 6:51 to play. It took the Rebels only nine plays and 3-and-a-half minutes to go 80 yards. Vanderbilt got the ball back and moved from the VU 20 to the Rebel 29. But the Commodores' chances to tie the game ended when Ole Miss forced Cutler to fumble with 20 seconds left.
The loss, Vandy's second in conference play, was a bitter pill, but Saturday's performance had to be a boost for the Commodore offense, which had averaged only 4.5 points per game and had not scored a touchdown against Division I-A competition. Saturday, the Commodores put up 38 points, five touchdowns, and 464 yards of total offense.
Vandy also firmly established its ground game for the first time this season. The Commodores rushed for 257 yards and had two rushers go over 100 yards each (Kwane Doster and Norval McKenzie) for the first time since last year's Duke game.
The disappointing facet of the game was the defensive performance. The Commodores allowed Manning to throw for an amazing 386 yards, and gave up a number of unsightly long touchdowns.
Ole Miss capitalized on two Vanderbilt turnovers to jump out to a 16-7 halftime lead. Jonathan Nichols opened the scoring with a 39-yard field goal on the Rebels' first possession. On Vandy's first possession the Commodores drove into scoring position at the Ole Miss 21, but Greg Johnson's field goal attempt bounced off the upright, no good.
Vandy's defense stopped the Rebels on their next possession, but true freshman punt returner Grant Brigham fumbled away Ole Miss' punt at the Commodore 18. It took Ole Miss five plays and a fourth-down conversion to score, but they did on fullback Vashon Pearson's 4-yard run up the middle. Ole Miss led at the end of the first quarter, 10-0.
Vanderbilt gave Ole Miss another golden opportunity early in the second quarter when tight end Tom Simone fumbled in Vandy territory after a pass reception. A 43-yard field goal by Nichols made it 13-0 Ole Miss.
The two teams exchanged punts, and then Vandy's offense finally began to click. A 35-yard Cutler pass over the middle to M. J. Garrett put Vandy in business. Kwane Doster went around right end 23 yards for the score, blasting in between blocks by Simone and fullback Bara Cola. It was Doster's first touchdown as a Commodore-- and Vandy's first touchdown of the season against a Division I-A opponent.
Ole Miss added a third Nichols field goal with 0:52 left in the second quarter, and Vandy found itself down 16-7 at halftime. For a second straight week, Vandy found itself asking, What if? (What if we hadn't given Ole Miss the ball twice in Vandy territory?)
Halfway through the third quarter, both offenses seemed to come out of a funk. Norval McKenzie streaked up the middle for a 47-yard gain to the Ole Miss 8. Vandy ran the ball three times, but couldn't advance past the 2, and had to settle for a Greg Johnson field goal that cut the Rebel lead to 16-10.
Eli Manning found receiver Chris Collins all alone in the Vandy secondary and hit him for a 79-yard catch-and-run that put Ole Miss up 23-10. But Vandy answered when Cutler found Garrett all alone on a 49-yard play-action pass that cut Ole Miss' lead to 23-17.
Like lightning, Manning found Mike Espy for a 78-yard bomb on Ole Miss' next offensive play, and the Rebs took a 30-17 lead. Ole Miss stopped Vandy once more, and the Rebels scored again on an 80-yard drive which was capped by a two-point conversion. Ole Miss then held a commanding lead of 38-17.
Perhaps Vandy's biggest heroes of the day were Doster, who had 243 yards on eight kickoff returns, including the 95-yarder; Garrett, who burst back on the scene with four catches for 128 yards after only two receptions in Vandy's first three games; and Cutler, who was 11-of-21 for 207 yards and two touchdowns passing.
Ultimately, however, turnovers played a huge role in the outcome. Ole Miss scored 10 points in the first half off two Vandy fumbles, and lost any chance to tie or win on Cutler's fumble as the seconds ticked down. Ole Miss did not have a turnover.
Linebacker Brandon Walthour suffered a concussion and missed the second half. The Rebels, however, lost three players to serious injuries during the course of the game.
Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 in the SEC) returns home for a 6 p.m. game against Lou Holtz' South Carolina Gamecocks next Saturday. Ole Miss improves to 3-1, 1-0.