Jay Cutler, who threw for one touchdown and scored two others on the ground, scored the ultimate game-winner with 1:14 left on a seven-yard option keeper. The score capped a 29-yard drive set up by a Grant Brigham punt return after Vandy's defense had forced Connecticut to punt out of its own end zone.
Both teams had entered the game urgently in need of a win. "They are all important," said a relieved Bobby Johnson. "I was really proud of the guys. We made the plays in the second half that we had to, especially in the fourth quarter."
For most of three quarters, the Commodores had struggled against an upstart pack of Huskies, and to the Vandy faithful the game looked like a disaster waiting to happen. But at crunch time all three phases of Vandy's game came up big. The Commodores' much-maligned defense produced two huge stops; punter Greg Johnson provided a big lift with a punt that pinned UConn on its 5; and Cutler and the offense finally wore down a defense that had done an admirable job all day of stopping the option.
"All those phases that we executed in the fourth quarter-- we did them in practice," said Johnson. "They were successful in practice, and that's the only way you're going to be successful in the game. I just asked them to keep working hard in practice.
"If we keep working and playing hard and being as efficient as we possibly can, that's all I'm going to ask my guys to do."
The win snapped a five-game losing streak for Johnson's Commodores (2-6, 0-4). It was Vandy's first win over a Division I-A school since the Commodores beat Duke in Durham, N.C. last year. (The Huskies, a longtime member of the Big East Conference in basketball and other sports, are in their third year as a Division I-A school, and are on track to become a full-fledged member of the Big East in football in 2005.)
The Commodores had hurt themselves early in the game with fumbles and defensive breakdowns, and Connecticut had jumped to a 10-7 halftime lead. The performance left visiting alumni, who had returned to check in on the progress of Bobby Johnson's rebuilding project, muttering to themselves during the halftime break.
But hey, give these Commodores a little credit. Four different times they came from behind, and the defense even pulled off a big defensive play-- an interception and runback by Jonathan Shaub with 45 seconds left-- to seal the victory. Shaub's pickoff allowed the Commodore offense to take a knee three times and run out the final 36 seconds.
"Jonathan did a good job of reading the route, and reading the quarterback," said Johnson. "They were trying to go vertical on our 2-deep coverage. He made a great break. I'd like for him to go down on the ground a little quicker, but he ran about ten seconds off the clock, which helped."
A Vanderbilt offense that had moved the ball on the ground with relative ease the previous week against No. 5 Georgia struggled for most of three quarters to move on the ground against Connecticut-- go figure.
But Jay Cutler's arm finally warmed up-- the freshman signal-caller hit 9 of his first 11 passes in the second half-- and twice in the fourth quarter the Commodores answered Connecticut touchdown drives with touchdowns of their own.
Before an unusually sparse and unenthused home crowd, the Commodores looked sluggish and uninspired themselves in the first half. After recovering a Kwane Doster fumble at the Husky 45, Dan Orlovsky marched the Huskies 55 yards for a touchdown. Freshman tailback Terry Caulley picked up the score on an eight-yard run on fourth-and-inches play, and Connecticut led 7-0.
That score held up for much of the first half, as both offenses sputtered. With 4:39 remaining in the half, fullback Bara Cola blew up the middle for a three-yard touchdown-- a score set up by a nice punt return by Erik Davis and a 40-yard burst up the middle by Matthew Tant. Connecticut answered with a 44-yard Marc Hickok field goal with 1:01 left, and the Huskies led at the half, 10-7.
The Commodores marched 76 yards on their first possession of the second half to retake the lead at 14-10. Cutler scored the TD on a nifty option keeper, but it was Brandon Smith's big, acrobatic catch on third-and-14 that kept the drive alive.
Early in the third quarter Vandy penetrated to the Husky 39, went for it on fourth-and-two, and missed when a Cutler play-action pass intended for Dan Stricker fell incomplete. Three plays later Connecticut scored on a Caulley run to take a 17-14 lead.
The Commodores answered swiftly when Cutler found M. J. Garrett for a 42-yard pass play to the UConn 21. That big play set up a subsequent 6-yard touchdown pass, again from Cutler to Garrett. The Commodores were in command again, 21-17.
But the Huskies still weren't done. Orlovsky drove Connecticut 80 yards, and his 12-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Collins put UConn back on top, 24-21. This time the Commodore offense was unable to answer, but a 53-yard Greg Johnson punt pinned the Huskies at the 5 with 3:03 left to play. If the Commodores were to have a chance, the defense would have to come up with a stop.
And come up with a stop they did. Dominique Morris tackled Caulley for a loss on third-and-five. Brigham fielded the Huskies' punt at the UConn 40, and returned it to the 29. Aided by a personal foul, Cutler engineered the Commodores to the 7, from which he scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:14 left.
Trailing 28-24, Connecticut had a chance to regain the lead with a successful drive-- but it all ended when Shaub intercepted Orlovsky's long pass downfield. The postgame celebration was on.
Kwane Doster had his second straight 100-yard rushing day, picking up 109 yards on 24 carries. Matthew Tant added 65 on eight carries.
At halftime the Homecoming crowd honored Vanderbilt's 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl team. Coached by George MacIntyre, the 1982 Commodores were the last Vanderbilt team to finish with a winning season and play in a bowl game.
Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-4 in the SEC) hosts Alabama (6-2) next Saturday at 1:00 p.m. CST in an SEC game at Vanderbilt Stadium. The game is not currently scheduled for network television, but may be available on pay-per-view in selected areas.