Blue Raiders, penalties derail Commodores, 21-20

Benji Walker eludes a tackle (AP / Neil Brake)

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- After rallying from a 14-3 deficit to score 17 straight points, and dominating the game for most of the second half, Vanderbilt couldn't stop a late Blue Raider touchdown drive and fell to Middle Tennessee, 21-20, before 28,660 Saturday night. The victory was MTSU's first of the 2002 season, but its second over Vandy in as many years.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- After rallying from a 14-3 deficit to score 17 straight points, and dominating the game for most of the second half, Vanderbilt couldn't stop a late Blue Raider touchdown drive and fell to Middle Tennessee, 21-20, before 28,660 Saturday night. The victory was MTSU's first of the 2002 season, but its second over Vandy in as many years.

It was an emotionally charged contest for supremacy in the Midstate, and a bitter defeat for Vandy, which fell to 1-5. From the Commodore standpoint, the story of the game was penalties. Entering the game the Commodores were the least penalized team in the SEC, but that will surely change next week.

Bobby Johnson's team, which had looked so well-disciplined in its first five games, looked terribly undisciplined Saturday evening. The Dores committed 14 penalties for 141 yards, many of which were of the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot variety.

"We did a poor job keeping our composure," said a shaken Bobby Johnson in the postgame press conference. "We did a poor job executing. We did not deserve to win. To tell you the truth, I'm embarrassed about the penalties tonight."

Late hits, unsportsmanlike conduct, lining up offsides-- Vandy had them all Saturday night. Which penalty was the most costly? It's hard to know where to start. But most of the Monday-morning quarterbacking will concern a penalty on a play that occurred with 8:30 left in the game.

Trailing 14-3 at the half, Vanderbilt fought back to take a 19-14 lead on a three-yard naked bootleg by Benji Walker, who was making his first collegiate start at quarterback. For prancing into the end zone rather than merely running, Walker was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing Vandy to kick the extra point instead of going for two. Greg Johnson's PAT from 35 yards pushed Vandy's lead to 20-14, but a two-point conversion would have stretched the lead to seven points.

"It definitely hurt us," said a remorseful Walker of the penalty. "We would have had a chance to go for two. It is obviously something that cost the team."

"You never know whether you would have made the two points or not," said Johnson. "But it could have meant the difference in the game."

Vanderbilt's defense even came up with a big stop with 5:10 left when cornerback Aaron McWhorter intercepted a pass from MTSU quarterback Andrico Hines in the end zone. At that point the Commodores needed only a few first downs to run out the clock. But the Vandy offense, which had moved the ball effectively through the second half, sputtered and went three-and-out.

Punter/kicker Greg Johnson-- unquestionably Vandy's individual star of the game-- kicked a dandy of a 62-yard punt. Another penalty on the Commodores, however-- this one a personal foul-- gave MTSU great field position at the Blue Raider 47. Behind two fine running backs, ReShard Lee and Dwone Hicks, Andrico Hines gamely drove MTSU to the Vandy 2, and Hicks dove in for the go-ahead score with 0:52 left.

Just as had happened in the previous two games, Vandy had the ball with a chance to win the game on its final offensive possession-- but the Commodores' last chance lasted all of one play. MTSU safety Brandon Lynch picked off Benji Walker's slant pass at the Vandy 40 and returned it to the 3, sealing the deal.

"This Vanderbilt team is a good team-- Bobby Johnson and staff has done a good job," said MTSU head coach Andy McCollum. "It is a totally different team [from last year]. That's why I feel good about our team because they came out there and beat a good team. The win was good regardless if it was against an SEC team or not."

On its first possession of the game, Vandy's offense easily drove from its own 16 to a first-and-goal at the MTSU 4-yard line. An offsides pushed Vandy back to the 9, but Walker drove 8 yards to the 1. An offsides call nullified a Matthew Tant touchdown dive. On third down an option keep by Walker was stopped short of the goal line, and the Commodores had to settle for an 18-yard Greg Johnson field goal. (There's four more points lost due to untimely penalties.)

MTSU answered with a long drive of its own, aided by some more-- what else?-- Commodore penalties. The Blue Raiders drove 80 yards on 11 plays, with Andrico Hines reaching paydirt on a five-yard run.

Late in the first half Middle Tennessee stretched its lead to 11 points with another time-consuming drive. The Raiders marched 83 yards on 13 plays, with Hines again getting the touchdown on a slashing 12-yard run through the middle of Vanderbilt's defense. MTSU led at the half 14-3.

For the first 25 minutes of the second half, Vanderbilt dominated the game on both sides. The Commodores scored 10 points on two time-consuming scoring drives, and kept MTSU pinned back on some outstanding punting by Greg Johnson.

Kwane Doster's 11-yard scoring run-- a run on which he twice spun away from MTSU tacklers-- cut the lead to 14-10. On its next possession Vandy drove 58 yards on a whopping 19 plays. The Commodores drove to the Middle Tennessee 7, but had to settle for a Greg Johnson field goal which cut the Raider lead to 14-13.

The two teams then exchanged punts. Vandy caught a big break when Greg Johnson's pooch punt glanced off an MTSU player and kept rolling deep into Commodore territory. Vandy's Andrew Pace recovered at the MTSU 3, setting up Walker's go-ahead touchdown.

Walker, who started in place of Jay Cutler due to a suspension, had fairly impressive statistics considering it was his first start. The junior led the team in rushing with 79 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown, and completed 13 of 23 passes for 107 yards. Sadly, his performance is likely to be remembered for his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and his last interception.

The statistics were nearly as close as the score. MTSU outgained Vandy 295-287, but Vandy held a 66-65 lead in offensive plays.

Ultimately, no statistic matters but the final score. But Bobby Johnson will undoubtedly circle the penalty stats as something to improve on for next week's road game against undefeated Georgia.

"We're going to have a long, hard talk with our team about penalties," said Johnson. "Georgia's a lot better team than that team we played tonight.... if we hurt ourselves like we did tonight, it could get ugly.

"I guarantee you-- well, I don't guarantee you anything, but-- we're not going to have penalties like that, or people are coming out of the game. And they won't go back in. We're not going to have those kinds of penalties again."

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